Trump Administration Lets State Take Lead On Development Permits For Wetlands

Dec 17, 2020


The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it is handing over at least some of its oversight of Florida’s wetlands to the state.

Specifically, the EPA is transferring permitting authority to the state, it says to streamline decisions on whether to fill in wetlands for development. 

Typically, if a project would damage or destroy wetlands, developers have to get approval from both the state and the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. But EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler believes lawmakers always intended for states to have more authority.

“This is exactly what Congress envisioned. It’s just what was in practice for the last 30 years was a number of federal hurdles that prevented states from taking over the program that Congress wanted them to take over,” Wheeler said.

The issue involves permitting dredge and fill activities under part of the federal Clean Water Act. Such activities, for example, can occur in building homes, commercial developments and utility projects, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Florida lawmakers in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a bill that was an initial step in trying to move authority for the permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the state. This August, Gov. Ron DeSantis submitted a package to the EPA seeking approval.

Supporters praised the move as helping reduce duplicative state and federal permitting and giving Florida more control over such decisions. 

“Our waters and wetlands are critical to our economy and way of life in Florida. As such, it is important for the state to be in charge and take the lead in their protection,” state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said in a statement released by the EPA. “We are pleased that with the assumption, Florida scientists and permitters will now be accountable for state and federal wetlands permits. DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) staff know the state’s resources best and have the expertise to ensure their protection.”

Republican Northeast Florida Congressman John Rutherford was among those celebrating.

“This is huge and I cannot thank you all enough because this is going to save time, it’s going to save money and it’s going to save our environment,” he said.

“This designation is great news for the state of Florida - it gives our state the ability to make the best decisions for our unique environment, with input from the public and environmental stakeholders,” said Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott in a prepared statement. “The duplicative rules on the state and federal levels were a waste of taxpayer dollars and created confusion for everyone involved, which is why I fought to streamline this process,” said Scott, who was governor at the time the 2018 bill passed.

But Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, called it a “dangerous mistake” to transfer permitting authority from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of Environmental Protection, which she described as underfunded and understaffed.

“Both the DeSantis and Trump administrations have demonstrated a disregard for transparency and disinterest in protecting our waters,” Fried said in a statement. “Those concerned with Florida’s environment have no reason to believe the state of Florida is prepared to manage critical wetlands permitting in a transparent, apolitical manner.”

Some environmental groups criticized the decision, saying it will reduce protections for wetlands, including the Everglades. Richard Grosso, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said it removes the wetlands from stronger federal protections like the Endangered Species Act. 

“You’re going to have understaffed wetlands permitting agencies that have constant political pressure to say, ‘Yes,” to development, a lot of it being pursued by the state of Florida itself. And they’re trying to enforce laws that are weaker than the federal laws,” said Grosso.

Others have pointed to the announcement’s timing as Republican President Donald Trump is slated to leave office next month.

“This is a parting gift to developers from the outgoing administration in Washington in coordination with the sitting administration in Florida,” Tania Galloni, managing attorney for Florida for the environmental law group Earthjustice. “The fact is that Florida’s proposed program to take over wetlands permitting doesn’t comply with federal environmental laws. It’s about destroying wetlands faster and cheaper at a time when we need more protection, not less. We’re considering our options.”

Other advocates are cheering the news. The Nature Conservancy describes the decision as a “positive development” that could expedite restoration projects. 

Florida is set to become the third state to be granted wetland permitting authority, after Michigan and New Jersey. But Matanzas Riverkeeper Jen Lomberk said those states have budgeted millions of dollars for it.

“Florida, on the other hand, has claimed that it would not require any additional resources to implement this program, which creates some concern about the thoroughness and protectiveness of this program since, essentially, it means an additional workload for a department that’s already having trouble keeping up with its existing responsibilities,” she said.

Lomberk hopes the incoming Biden administration will consider reversing the decision.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.