EPA report redefining wetlands criticized by environmentalists


The Environmental Protection Agency proposed yesterday to narrow the definition of a wetland after months of intense criticism from landowners, farmers and oil industry interests who argued that too much land is included in the classification.

EPA chief William K. Reilly handed over the draft report to a Senate subcommittee, saying he expected that the new proposal would require fewer landowners to apply for federal permits to develop their land. The proposed definition would require that land be saturated with water for 10 to 20 consecutive days a year rather than only seven days under the old definition.

The draft has not been formally accepted by the White House or the Office of Management and Budget, but Mr. Reilly said he expected that approval.

Environmentalists immediately criticized the new rules, saying that President Bush was retreating from his campaign promise of "no net loss" of wetlands. Wetlands -- marshes, bogs and swamps -- support wildlife, act as pollution filters and reduce flooding.

Some of the areas that might not be included in the new classification are important habitat for waterfowl and "are most important to the Chesapeake Bay," said Linda Winter, a legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation.

But LaJuana Wilcher, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, said the agency was not attempting to decrease the number of acres that are regulated.

The proposal also did not satisfy landowners.

"The changes are not adequate," said Margaret Anne Reigle, president of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, a group based in Cambridge. "They have not reinserted the word wet in the definition of the wetland. They are using this as a tool for federal zoning."

How wetlands are regulated has become increasingly controversial since 1989, when four federal agencies, including the EPA, rewrote the definition or "manual" to classify a wetland to include many more acres. In Maryland, about 1 million acres were estimated to be included in the new definition, triple the number previously classified.

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