Report: Norton missed deadline on major plan
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In what environmentalists are calling a suppression of science in favor of industry interests, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton failed to submit highly critical comments one of her agencies drafted in response to a major environmental regulation plan, The Washington Post reports today.

The department missed a deadline to comment on a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to relax wetlands protection standards due to a dispute between two agencies whose leaders haven't been confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate, an official told the paper. "There were not enough hands on deck to move the paperwork through the system," the paper quotes Mark Pfeifle, the press secretary to Norton, as saying.

But detractors who charge Norton and her aides are dismantling environmental protections, believe there is another reason for the Interior's silence. The critical response by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't make it through because top officials involved, including Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and counselor Ann Klee, were former lobbyists for the mining industry, which supports the relaxed rules.

"Fish and Wildlife is getting rolled," said an unnamed official from an agency The Post does not name.

The incident marks the second time in recent months Norton and her top staff have become tangled in a dispute with scientists and biologists at Fish and Wildlife. Charged with protecting endangered species, managing the refuge system and restoring wetlands, the agency is a purely scientific one.

Those goals often conflict with development of federal lands, particularly over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In October, an environmental group and The Post reported that Norton's aides, including Klee, modified testimony submitted to Congress to reflect a pro-development slant.

Then, as now, the Interior blamed the problem on a simple mixup. Pfeifle told the paper that the scientists and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement had resolved differences over the department's response to the wetlands regulations but political appointees deemed the submission premature.

According to the paper, Fish and Wildlife's environmental concerns were highlighted in a 15-page response, drafted on October 15, which said the proposed plan "has no scientific basis." The mining office, on the other hand, offered comments supporting a provision affecting coal mines, but was silent on other aspects, the paper reported.

With protection of the environment and sacred sites a top concern of tribal leaders, such disputes have a potential to affect Indian Country. Tribes have relied on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to represent their interests on department-wide issues, such as mine near Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico for which BIA consultants have raised doubts.

Tribes also look to the Interior to uphold its trust responsibilities when it comes to multi-agency plans. Last fall, for example, the Interior submitted comments opposing a railroad expansion through the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Failure to submit comments on time, however, hasn't always been a hindrance to having an agency present its views. The Interior itself routinely allows other federal government agencies to respond past the public cut-off date, officials told Indianz.Com.

Regarding the wetlands plan, however, it would be too late for the Interior to act. The final regulations are due to be announced today.

The Environmental Protection Agency filed its comments objecting to the proposal on time, The Post reported.

Get the Report:
Interior's Silence on Corps Plan Questioned (The Washington Post 1/14)

Relevant Links:
Wetlands and Regulatory Proposals, Army Corps of Engineers -

Related Stories:
Norton admits ANWR 'mistake' (10/23)
Norton staff rewrote Arctic drilling data (10/19)