Administration Allows Wetlands Rule to Take Effect

The Bush administration will allow a Clinton-era environmental rule to take effect Tuesday, which closes a loophole that allowed construction companies to work in swamps, bogs and marshes without permits.

The new rule, a part of the Clean Water Act, had been scheduled to take effect on Feb. 16. It was delayed until after the Bush administration completed a review of regulations approved by former President Clinton in his final days in office.

The rule states that activities such as landscaping or ditch digging near wetlands areas will be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"In addition to serving as habitat for wildlife, wetlands help filter and protect our country's water supply," said EPA chief Christie Whitman on Monday. "Today's action will help preserve our wetlands for ourselves and for future generations."

The issue of wetlands preservation has long been a battleground for environmental groups and the construction industry.

Under the Clean Water Act, introducing pollutants into waterways requires a permit. But whether the entirety of the act applied to wetlands -- areas of low-standing water -- was left ambiguous by a 1997 U.S. District Court ruling in favor of a construction effort. That ruling allowed companies to dig soil and gravel and reintroduce it into streams and waterways.

The loophole also has allowed construction companies to clear land and expand channels.

President Bush, who has faced growing criticism over his stewardship of the environment, went out of his way to praise the wetlands decision.

"The president applauds EPA Administrator Whitman's decision to move forward with pending regulations to protect our wetlands," the White House said in a prepared statement.

The new rule closes a loophole in the Clean Water Act "that could have been used to jeopardize vital wetlands," the statement said.

The administration said the new rule "will also provide much-needed regulatory certainty by clarifying the kinds of activities that the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believe may result in harmful discharges into our nation's wetlands."

Environmental groups were "cautiously optimistic."

"It comes as a welcome surprise," said Daniel Rosenberg, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That said, we are viewing it with some degree of caution. It remains to be seen how vigorously the administration will defend the rule. It could be weakened or killed in the courtroom, through court settlements with the industry."

Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel for Earthjustice, an advocacy group, said Bush has proved little by allowing the rule to go forward.

"The true test of the administration's commitment to clean water protection will be whether the administration aggressively implements the rule and faithfully defends it from industry attacks in court," Mulhern said.