Washington, DC — The top environmental official for the Commonwealth of Virginia is threatening retaliation if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refuses to cede authority over wetlands protection to the state, according to letters released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This nasty jurisdictional battle will determine the toll that development will take on streams, marshes and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
In a March 19, 2007 letter, L. Preston Bryant, a developer consultant and former legislator now serving as the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, demands that the Army Corps Norfolk District commander, Colonel Dionysius Anninos, honor a prior verbal agreement that the Corps grant the state a sizable amount of its permitting authority over developments with impacts on streams and wetlands. Otherwise, Bryant threatens, the state will withhold cooperation on future water planning and environmental projects worth millions of dollars. In addition, Bryant demands that Col. Anninos disregard any objections in public comments filed by individuals and that the Colonel “root…out” any Corps employees who may dissent.
At immediate issue for the Corps is whether to award Virginia “expanded” wetlands permit authority. That decision is slated to be announced in early June. Based upon Bryant’s letter, PEER today filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, the Corps’ parent agency, alleging improper political interference and violations of federal regulations, including:
- An illegal pre-decision made during-closed door meetings with top officials to award the expanded authority to Virginia prior to consideration of public comments on the matter;
- Improperly attempting to influence an official regulatory decision by threatening to withhold millions of dollars in state partnership funds. In addition, John Paul Woodley, a former Virginia Natural Resources Secretary who is now the Assistant Secretary of the Army overseeing the Corps, participated in meetings to cement the turnover and was invoked by Bryant as the enforcer if Col. Anninos changed his mind; and
- Suppression of public comments. Bryant urged and Col. Anninos then agreed to inappropriately disregard all public comments, including those from Corps staff in their personal capacity.
“This turf fight really is about whether the waters of Virginia will be at the mercy of the development interests allied with Mr. Bryant and Mr. Woodley, who apparently is angling to return to Virginia in another official position,” stated PEER Board Member Magi Shapiro, a retired career Corps project engineer and wetland scientist. “Secretary Bryant would not need to resort to threats unless he could not make his case on the merits.”
Public comments point out that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency that would assume wetland oversight, lacks the ability to ensure compliance with permits or enforce violations, in part because its staff lack state vehicles and cannot monitor sites. Moreover, DEQ’s thin staff lacks necessary training and suffers a high turnover rate due to job dissatisfaction.
“The only legitimate issue is who is better equipped to protect Virginia’s wetlands but that question appears to be, at best, an afterthought,” Shapiro added. “It is clear that DEQ is not prepared to assume responsibility for water quality in fact or in spirit. While other states have the authority Virginia seeks, those states have laws and programs demonstrated to be equivalent to that of the Corps – Virginia, unfortunately, does not.”