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PRESS RELEASE:

Thursday, June 10, 1999
Contact: Todd Robins (202) 265-7337 / E-mail: info@peer.org
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) http://www.peer.org/

FEDERAL STAFF TOLD TO OVERLOOK WETLANDS VIOLATIONS
- MILLIONS OF ACRES OPEN TO ILLEGAL DEVELOPMENT

Washington, D.C....U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff have been ordered to overlook inaccurate classifications of agricultural wetlands, an order which leaves millions of legally protected vernal pools, marshes and prairie potholes vulnerable to development, according to documents filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  PEER is asking both the USDA and EPA Offices of Inspector General to investigate the agencies' failure to protect agricultural wetlands and, in particular, what appears to be an official policy of consciously ignoring a colossal number of Clean Water Act violations throughout the country.

According to documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act, top EPA officials have issued orders to keep EPA regulators off agricultural lands.  In addition, State Conservationists within USDA are issuing directives to weaken wetlands standards in order to avoid enforcement actions against politically prominent agricultural producers. 

As a result, millions - and perhaps hundreds of millions -  of legally protected wetland acres are left undetected and thus unprotected from developers' bulldozers or from conversion to dump sites.

The results of a 1997 internal U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service ( the NRCS is within USDA) survey, released by PEER, found more than 60 percent of the over 3 million wetland determinations done by NRCS on agricultural lands are totally inaccurate.  Yet, EPA managers, with full knowledge of the high rates of inaccuracy, directed their own field staff to consider NRCS determinations valid for purposes of enforcing Clean Water Act wetland protection rules and prohibited staff from conducting any review of even the most inadequate determinations. Many of the states most affected by the bad assessments, such as Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and North Carolina (each with more than 240,000 farmland tracts assessed by NRCS) had wetland determination "failure" rates between 80 and 100 percent.

"On one hand, the Clinton Administration pledged a Clean Water Initiative with a goal of saving hundreds of thousands of wetland acres, while, on the other hand, the same federal officials charged with carrying out this initiative have deliberately turned a blind eye toward the possible destruction of a much greater area of wetlands," stated PEER General Counsel Todd Robins.  The Clinton Administration has been under intense political pressure from farm state interests and their Congressional representatives to minimize Clean Water Act wetlands regulation on agricultural lands. 

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Copies of the PEER complaints, internal agency memos and related documents are available upon request.


Media Contacts: Steven Medina, FLPEER Counsel: 850-664-7856

PRESS ADVISORY:

Environmental and Government Watchdogs Groups Call for Governor to Reinstate South Florida Water Management District's Top Scientist

Miami, FL (June 8, 1999) - In a letter to Governor Jeb Bush today, leaders of environmental and watchdog groups called for the immediate reinstatement of a senior Everglades restoration scientist fired for comments quoted in The Miami Herald.

The letter urged Bush to reinstate Dr. Nicholas Aumen, an eight-year veteran of the state's largest water management district, who was abruptly fired last week for comments made in a May 19 Everglades Science Forum exploring the linkages between science and management. According to the letter, if the dismissal were not overturned, "it would create an atmosphere of fear of reprisal for public scientists throughout the state."

"When one of the state's top scientists is terminated for his words," the letter said, "it sends a very strong message to Floridians that science is disposable."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it was also sending a letter to Governor Bush today, regarding Aumen's First Amendment rights. A memo firing Aumen, written by his supervisor Alan Hall and signed by interim director James Harvey, cited Aumen's quotes in the newspaper as a cause of his dismissal. "This termination, if upheld, will undoubtedly chill communications by government scientists relied upon to protect Florida's environment." said Steven Medina, Florida Counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), "To fire a scientist for responding honestly in a forum aimed at openly discussing communications problems is Orwellian and scary."

"We need to avoid an atmosphere where scientists are afraid to speak out." said Mary Munson, public lands associate for Florida Defenders of Wildlife. As part of a settlement approved just weeks ago by Governor Jeb Bush, SFWMD employees were assured of their right to express their opinions. In an April 14 memo to Interim Director Harvey, Governor Bush
wrote: "As leader of  this new administration, I would like to create an atmosphere of transparent decision making in every agency. I thank you in advance for your efforts to communicate this same message to your employees."

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