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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The Army Corps of Engineers has just released new rules on wetlands protection. The plan is drawing criticism from environmentalists, who say the Department of Interior withheld a crucial review by the Fish and Wildlife Service when finalizing the Corps proposal. Host Steve Curwood talks with Mark Pfeifle, Press Secretary for the Department of Interior.


CURWOOD: There are new and controversial rules today governing the nation's wetlands. The measures allow mining companies and developers to dump and dredge in certain wetland areas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says aquatic ecosystems will be protected, but some Federal agencies disagree. The EPA has filed objections, and the Fish and Wildlife Service says the plan contains some scientific flaws. But the Interior Department signed off on the new rules anyway.

Now, advocacy groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, are charging that the Interior Department buried the scientific criticism to advance a pro-development agenda. Here to respond is Interior Department Press Secretary Mark Pfeifle. Mr. Pfeifle, welcome.

PFEIFLE: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mr. Pfeifle, why weren't the criticisms from the Fish and Wildlife Service taken into account by the Army Corps before the Corps drafted its final proposal?

PFEIFLE: We found out that this was on a fast track basis and that the Army Corps wanted the information, with about 48 hours notice, in the middle of December. Unfortunately, that was not enough time to get the process completed and to have a thoroughly researched and reviewed document to the Army Corps. What we did instead was we sent a detailed draft preamble language document over to the Army Corps, which gave the major points that the Fish and Wildlife Service made, which was that wetlands must be protected. Also, we gave the majority of the information from the Office of Surface Mining. Their concern was that mining is done in an environmentally sensitive and responsible way, and that the permit be allowed to continue.

CURWOOD: Can you explain to me why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not able to wait to release its final proposal until you and the Interior were able to have a more thorough review of the Fish and Wildlife Service response and your mining department's response?

PFEIFLE: They set the timetables, we don't. We attempt to comply with them, and we made a good effort to do so. Unfortunately, it was kind of late in the fourth quarter, and unfortunately, the clock ran out.

CURWOOD: The Fish and Wildlife Service expressed concerns about permits for coal mining. In particular, I think, quoting from one portion of the report, the service said that these coal mining practices destroy aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and that the Army Corps had no scientific basis to assert that the permit will cause only minimal, individual, and cumulative impacts on the environment. And, at the same time, the only official response from the overall Department of Interior on the Corps proposal was in support of those coal mining rules. So, how do you reconcile the consensus building and this pretty strongly worded dissent from Fish and Wildlife Service about their view of the impact to some of these mining practices?

PFEIFLE: That's what we do as a department, Steve, is that we take different viewpoints and we try and turn them into one overall, department-wide consensus. Whenever you have bureaus or departments or divisions within a company, within a family, within a government agency, you're going to have some conflict. But it's our responsibility at the department to try and work through those conflicts and find a department-wide viewpoint.

CURWOOD: The former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, under the democratic Clinton Administration, has been highly critical of the events we've been discussing here. There's a quote from her saying: "For Interior to stop Fish and Wildlife from commenting on something of this magnitude and importance, that's really unbelievable." And the environmental advocacy groups that are complaining that the Department of Interior has an agenda in its lack of response to Fish and Wildlife Service criticisms. How does your department respond to these claims?

PFEIFLE: Absolutely, patently false. One thing that the person who you mentioned is, is that she was confirmed by the Senate. She had the opportunity, in the previous administration, to do her job. One of the problems we have with the Interior Department, Steve, is that we don't have at, this point, our Senate-confirmed people to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of Surface Mining. If we would have had those people on board, there's a possibility that we would have had this completed.

But let me make one point very, very strongly, and that's that this administration and this department and this secretary is strongly supportive of wetlands recovery, at enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and in protecting our natural resources, our wildlife refugees, our national parks and other things.

CURWOOD: Mark Pfeifle is press secretary for the Department of Interior. Mr. Pfeifle, thanks for speaking with us today.

PFEIFLE: Thank you, Steve.

[MUSIC: Norman Blake, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."]



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