by jordan blum
Advocate Washington bureau
June 08, 2012
WASHINGTON — Federal legislation is moving forward that would prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana from using a method of calculating wetlands restoration that critics allege is hampering progress on levee protection and business development projects.
Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, tacked on an amendment to a large energy and water spending bill after 10 p.m. Tuesday in a voice vote that would stop the corps for one year from using the so-called Modified Charleston Method that went into place last year in Louisiana for calculating wetlands mitigation.
The term “wetlands mitigation” is the federally required process through which developers, both public and private, wanting to build in wetlands must buy credits.
The money is then used to create or restore wetlands in another area. Landry and other critics claim the credits cost so much that development is being delayed or curtailed.
The House approved the overall bill on a 255-165 vote late Wednesday. The measure also includes $10 million for coastal restoration programs in Louisiana.
Critics of the Modified Charleston Method argue the new rules are stalling projects ranging from business developments in St. Tammany Parish to the Morganza-to-the-Gulf flood protection system plan to build in greater levee protections for Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. The contention is the MCM is forcing businesses and local and state government entities to pay much more in mitigation efforts.
“The corps’ new wetlands rules are actually halting the creation of wetlands,” Landry said. “It (the amendment) is forcing the Corps to take a breath and develop a mitigation system that provides for our wetlands without stifling the need for hurricane protection measures and economic development.”
Stephen Pfeffer, MCM project manager for the corps in New Orleans, said the new method was created because the old system was too subjective and not creating enough mitigation efforts. The MCM is much more consistent and transparent, he said.
“It’s repeatable, predictable and much easier to use,” Pfeffer said, acknowledging that MCM requires more credits to restore more wetlands than previously.
Pfeffer said man-made wetlands are not as strong as those naturally created so the ratios must be higher to offset the losses, as required in the federal Clean Water Act.
The MCM factors in such aspects as the difficulty to replace the affected wetlands, the quality of the wetlands, the amount of damage to the wetlands and the potential for cumulative effects.
Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., argued against Landry that changing the more-consistent MCM would only further delay pending projects in Louisiana.
“We would not have transparency; we would not have consistency,” Visclosky said. “We would have delay.”
But, in Louisiana, many business, government and environmental groups agree the MCM needs to go, even if they do not agree on the ideal mitigation rules.
Val Marmillion, managing director of America’s WETLAND Foundation, in New Orleans, said he hopes Landry’s amendment forces federal agencies to pay attention and develop new rules.
Marmillion said the concern is the MCM is actually stalling environmentally beneficial projects.
“This, to me, is just a flaw in the policy apparatus that needs to be fixed,” Marmillion said. “Coastal Louisiana is different than most places, and we have an ongoing emergency.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was the first of the Louisiana congressional delegation to complain to the Corps of Engineers last year about the MCM.
She argued that the method may work great in much of the nation but that southern Louisiana is losing more than a football field a day from coastal erosion and that more flexibility is needed.
“With so much at stake, and with such a great need for unique solutions, it begs the question as to why the Corps of Engineers would apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach to coastal Louisiana,” Landrieu wrote in October. “The exact opposite approach is needed.”
Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, compared the corps handling wetlands mitigation to BP being given control of the Gulf of Mexico’s fisheries.
“Further, they (Corps of Engineers) have refused to impose these same standards on their own hurricane protection repairs in the greater New Orleans area,” Graves said in an email response. “I am hopeful that Cong. Landry’s amendment will bring much needed attention to this disparity and provide an opportunity to work with the Corps to a reasonable approach to hurricane protection, coastal restoration and wetlands mitigation.”