Katrina & Beyond


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was the importance of wetlands. Marshy, spongy terrain can absorb some of the punch of a storm surge by soaking up the floodwaters. Since the storm, there's been plenty of official lip service for wetlands protection.

But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, builders are pushing the federal government to loosen wetlands rules along the Gulf Coast.

MARTIN KASTE: Mississippi's Hancock County took a direct hit from Katrina and the shoreline is still mainly rubble and empty foundations. But developers here have big plans.

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KASTE: Work is wrapping up on the brand new Silver Slipper Casino sandwiched between the beach and a stretch of wetlands. There's a luxury condo tower planned next door. Bob Davis, a retiree and a local environmental activist, points out the spot.

Mr. BOB DAVIS: It was prime marsh land until about February when they came in and filled it.

KASTE: Clay and dirt have been bulldozed into the marsh, filling in about five acres. Davis and his allies managed to stop the condo project by complaining to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps regulates construction in wetlands and it acknowledged that the condo project did not have the right permits. But Davis says it's just a temporary victory.

Mr. DAVIS: Been like 14 developments have been proposed to the county. As you can see, there's just not that much high land. You'd have to fill in these marshes if they're going to do any kind of building like that. It would be a disaster.

KASTE: A disaster, he says, because he believes every acre of lost wetlands will make the next flood that much worse.

But not everyone sees things that way.

Mr. DON HALL (General contractor): This shows you a small development that I'm working on.

KASTE: Don Hall has an office full of blueprints. His construction company is in Gulf Port, another town on the Mississippi Coast still littered with the hulks of houses and shattered buildings. He says his new subdivisions are often delayed six months or more if he needs to get a permit to fill in wetlands, even if the wetlands are what's called low quality, meaning they're not very wet most of the time.

Hall doesn't see the point. He certainly doesn't buy the argument that low quality wetlands help to control flooding.

Mr. HALL: No, I do not. I think that's an argument that the extreme environmentalists like to use, but I don't think that's the case at all. Some people would not want you to do anything, but you can't stand still. You have people who need homes and it's got to be in the middle somewhere.

KASTE: Builders want looser wetlands rules and the Army Corps is trying to accommodate them. The Corps has proposed a special rule for coastal Mississippi that would let a builder use a fast track permit whenever he wants to fill in up to five acres of low quality wetlands. The rule would leave it up to the builder to certify that the wetlands he's filling in are really just low quality.

Environmental groups accuse the Corps of letting developers take over the whole process. But Patrick Robbins, spokesman for the Corps' Mobile office, says that's not the case.

Mr. PATRICK ROBBINS (Spokesman, Army Corps of Engineers Mobile): The developer can't just walk in and look at the land and go those are low quality. There's a report that has to be filled out. In many cases, based on topography maps and other technical data that we have within the Corps, we can look at what they've submitted and verify the accuracy of that.

KASTE: But local environmentalists no longer trust the Corps to verify anything. Howard Page is with the Sierra Club.

Mr. HOWARD PAGE (Sierra Club): The Corps has not done their duty at all.

KASTE: Page is out by the railroad tracks in North Gulf Port. He makes it his business to watch for illegal wetland fills, such as this spot here, where someone started trucking in the dirt without so much as a basic building permit.

Mr. PAGE: There's such a lax environment down here, that there's no controls, no regulation enforcement, that the developers are just coming in and doing what they want.

KASTE: When Page points out these illegal fills, the Army Corps usually steps in and stops construction. But it may soon be harder for environmentalists to do this kind of gadfly work.

Under the proposed new rule, Mississippi builders would no longer have to notify the public before filling in what they consider low quality wetlands. No public notification and no 30-day public comment period. Decisions about wetlands would become a quiet matter between a government agency eager to promote the redevelopment of the Gulf Coast and the builders who want to do the job.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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