NORFOLK, Va. -- The Clean Water Act turns 40 today and, though opponents and supporters still debate the scope and effectiveness of the landmark legislation, employees of the regulatory branch here have a clear understanding of their mission.
“It’s about being consistent and operating within the scope of our authorities,” said Col. Paul Olsen, Norfolk District commander and a registered environmental engineer. “I am committed to balancing the nation’s passion to build with our responsibility to sustain.”
Balance is a recurring theme, according to Tom Walker, chief of the district’s regulatory branch. Walker’s 52-person staff, operating from the district’s headquarters and field offices throughout Virginia, covers all of the Commonwealth's 42,767 square miles, evaluates about 3,000 permit applications, and performs about an equal number pre-application site visits and jurisdictional determinations each year.
The district’s permit applications, pre-application visits and jurisdictional determinations range in size and complexity from the construction of private piers and farm ponds to surface coal mines and industrial projects involving hundreds of acres, Walker said.
The entire effort is part of the Department of the Army’s Regulatory Program, one of the oldest environmental programs in the federal government and one that initially served a straightforward purpose: protecting and maintaining the navigable capacity of the nation's waters.
At the port of Pittsburgh in 1892, for instance, the Corps took a grand jury on a boat tour of the harbor and obtained some 50 indictments of firms dumping debris into the harbor, and in 1893, Corps officials forced one Ohio community to build an incinerator and burn refuse rather than dump the garbage into the river where, the Corps insisted, it obstructed navigation.
Today, however, the program is more complex, Walker said, and draws its authority from three sources: the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, often referred to as the Clean Water Act, which added all waters of the United States to the scope of the program.
“It’s [the Clean Water Act] very important,” said Kimberly Prisco-Baggett, chief of the district’s Eastern Virginia regulatory section. “Everything I do every day is related to that act.”
The work done by Prisco-Baggett and the other regulators supervised by Walker evaluates the benefits and detriments of proposed projects, the values of the nation’s aquatic ecosystems to the general public, and the rights of individual property owners.
“It goes back to balance,” said Prisco-Baggett. “It’s not just the environmental impacts, it ends up being a balance between the environment and the public interest review factors.”
In 2011, Corps regulators throughout the country issued decisions on an estimated 50,000 permits. Nationwide, the Corps only denies about three percent of applications annually.
“It’s very rare,” said Prisco-Baggett. “It’s really our job to figure out how to help them get what they need. It may not be the original plan they came in with, but we find a way to make it work while balancing all the different interests.”
According to Walker, district regulators are focused on finding and permitting the least environmentally damaging practical alternative.
“It’s not a conservation program, it’s a permit program,” said Walker. “The intent is not to stop things; the intent is to make sure they are done in a responsible manner.”
In some cases, the least environmentally damaging practical alternative means there will still be impacts to the nation’s aquatic resources, he explained. In those cases, the impacts are minimized as appropriate and often offset by compensatory mitigation, which may include restoring, enhancing, creating and preserving aquatic functions.
“Development happens. It has to happen,” said Prisco-Baggett, “we just have to balance all the components of it and do it in an environmentally sensitive way. There are very few permits we’ve denied because they are bad projects. We often just go back and say ‘look, we don’t think you’ve evaluated all the options.’”
For Walker and Prisco-Baggett, the success of the regulatory program depends on customer service, communication and keeping the staff consistent in their decisions. Since the introduction of the Clean Water Act, public needs, evolving policy, case law and new statutory mandates have changed the regulatory program.
“There’s a lot of complexity, a lot of layers, a lot of variables,” said Prisco-Baggett, who meets weekly with her staff to discuss projects and keep everyone on the same page.
For Walker, regular national and regional conference calls, and regular staff meetings and “calibration” training in the field for district regulators are essential for maintaining a professional regulatory staff. During the summer, regulatory supervisors used wetland delineation work on nearby Joint Base Langley-Eustis as an opportunity to calibrate the staff’s approach to determining the boundary between wetlands and uplands (or non-wetlands) through examination of vegetation, soils and hydrology.
“Here at Norfolk District, we take an active approach to ensuring consistency,” Walker said. “Nationally, we’re very aware that there is often controversy and intense scrutiny – consistency is something we’re very sensitive to and pay attention to throughout the Corps’ regulatory program.”
Olsen, who like to remind his district that “Building Strong implies Building Smart,” said it all comes down to doing the right thing. Many in the district have coined his strategic approach "The Four C’s."
“I keep people focused on the importance of doing the right thing for the Corps, the country, the Commonwealth and the communities,” he said. “That means following our processes, making consistent decisions, and operating strictly within our statutory authorities. Not all of our decisions will be popular, but we’re committed to protecting the nation's aquatic resources while allowing reasonable development through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions.”