Former Reagan administration officials once responsible for enforcing environmental laws have been trying to enlist real-estate, oil and other interests in a $5,000-a-member organization aimed at changing federal wetlands regulations.
A solicitation letter announcing the birth of the Wetlands Coalition for Procedural Fairness was sent in May to dozens of companies and trade groups for industries whose activities in marshes, bogs and swamps require a federal permit, according to Robert E. Steinberg, a cofounder of the coalition who was special litigation counsel for the Justice Department's Land Division until last year.
The letter calls the wetlands permit process "convoluted and unpredictable" and warns of efforts by environmentalists to seek regulatory reforms that "could render property containing wetlands worthless and result in huge financial losses."
Noting the government backgrounds of other coalition organizers, including John E. Daniel, former chief of staff to then-EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford, the letter promises to "counteract those efforts" by seeking a presidential executive order and regulatory changes favorable to development interests.
Steinberg said in an interview that the coalition is still in its initial stage and that no one has paid the $5,000 membership fee needed to finance its activities.
But the effort has raised concern among environmentalists, who fear the effectiveness of such influential opponents. The organizers include two former, well-placed career officials: Jim J. Tozzi, ex-deputy administrator of the Office of Management and Budget, and Curtis Clark, ex-chief of the Army Corps of Engineers' wetlands permit branch.
"You have high-power people who know how buttons are pushed, who's on the inside and how to get things done," said David Ortman of Friends of the Earth.
The coalition has emerged at a time of increased focus on a section of the Clean Water Act protecting wetlands. Anyone seeking to fill in the watery bodies for construction, farming, logging, oil drilling or other reasons must obtain a permit from the Army Corps. The Environmental Protection Agency has veto power.
Developers generally have gotten their way. But they were jolted last May. The EPA stopped a Corps permit for a large shopping center project on forested wetlands in Attleboro, Mass., citing "unacceptable, adverse effects on wildlife."
Reflecting concern for the loss of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 acres of wetlands annually, EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas has set up a new office to improve protection of the natural habitats.
Tozzi, who oversaw wetlands rules in his role as deputy administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulation Affairs, said the Attleboro decision created alarm and uncertainty among developers and inspired the idea for a coalition of interested parties to press for regulatory changes.
"It's a growing concern that EPA has unmitigated discretion to grab a developer at any time," Tozzi said. "It's a lot easier to get generic changes in the regulatory structure than go on a case-by-case basis" of seeking permits.
Tozzi, who started a consulting firm here after leaving the OMB in 1983, heads a separate group that helps developers get permits. The so-called Wetland Permit Group includes Clark, who retired from the Corps last year; Gary H. Baise, former chief of staff to then-EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus, and William N. Hedeman, ex-deputy assistant EPA administrator for water.
Steinberg, now in private practice in the same Washington firm as Daniel, said the coalition is intended not to weaken wetlands regulations but to clarify and standardize them so that developers and other concerns do not invest great sums of money only to have their projects ultimately rejected by the EPA.
He declined to identify the companies and associations solicited for coalition membership. But they are known to include ARCO Alaska Inc., a division of ARCO, which has drilling operations near wetlands in the North Slope of Alaska; the American Petroleum Institute; the National Association of Home Builders; the National Association of Office and Industrial Parks; the International Council of Shopping Centers, and timber interests.
"If developers as a whole remain silent," the coalition's solicitation letter in May said, "regulatory changes may take place that could drastically reduce the value of property containing wetlands and that might require developers to abandon projects in which they have already invested millions of dollars."
According to the letter, the coalition will seek a presidential executive order that would require the Corps to determine within 60 days of an application whether the developer could put his project somewhere else. A permit now can be denied if the Corps decides there is another site, but there is no deadline for such a determination, causing developer uncertainty.
The coalition also may try to narrow the class of wetlands qualifying for special protection, the letter said.