Swamped With Cash

Political campaign contributions and the assault on America's wetlands laws

March 1, 1996

Swamped With Cash: Anti-wetlands PAC Contributions to the Senate

Anti-wetlands PAC contributions are strongly correlated with cosponsorship of S. 851, the anti-wetlands bill currently pending in the Senate. The 21 Senators who are currently listed as cosponsors of S. 851 received, on average, $95,393 in anti-wetlands PAC contributions from 1990 through 1995. In comparison, Senators not listed as cosponsors of S. 851 received an average of $50,249 over the same period. All but two cosponsors of S. 851 received higher than average contributions from anti-wetlands PACs over the period studied. (See Figure 7.)

Figure 7. From 1990 through 1995, anti-wetlands PACs gave higher-than-average contributions to all but two cosponsors of S. 851.

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Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from Federal Election Commission data.

As with contributions to the House, anti-wetlands PAC contributions to the Senate appear to be increasingly skewed towards Senators who have cosponsored S. 851. In 1995, contributions from anti-wetlands PACs to the 21 cosponsors of S. 851 totaled $352,314--more than $18,000 higher than the total contributions to the other 79 Senators. In addition, anti-wetlands PACs were nearly twice as likely to have contributed in 1995 to Senators who had cosponsored S. 851, and gave nearly 4 times as much, on average, to cosponsors of S. 851 as to non-cosponsors. (See Figure 8.)

Figure 8. From 1990 through 1995, anti-wetlands PACs gave higher-than-average contributions to all but two cosponsors of S. 851.

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Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from Federal Election Commission data.

Other loopholes in H.R. 961 and S. 851

In addition to creating a new definition that would declare the majority of wetlands in the country to be non-wetlands, H.R. 961 and S. 851 contain exemptions and loopholes that would make it easier to drain and develop even areas that the bills would still define as wetlands.

  • No EPA role. Both H.R. 961 and S. 851 would eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency's role in wetlands protection. EPA currently sets standards for the wetlands program and can veto wetlands permits that are harmful to water quality or fisheries. The two bills would give all wetlands authority to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and to USDA.
  • Writes off "low value" wetlands. H.R. 961 and S. 851 would institute a "ranking" scheme to determine whether a wetland was valuable enough to deserve protection. Not only are the ranking standards arbitrary and unscientific, they would only allow protection for the largest and most pristine wetlands. "Low value" wetlands could be destroyed with no restrictions, even if the cumulative impacts on water quality or community drinking water supplies were very high. Even protections for "medium-value" wetlands would be much lower than under current law.
  • Favored industries get big breaks. H.R. 961 and S. 851 contains new exemptions for mining companies, oil, gas and utility pipelines, agribusinesses (including commercial fish farms and animal feedlots), coastal real estate developers, and timber companies, among others.


Why wetlands lose protection under S. 851 and H.R. 961

According to field tests, S. 851 and H.R. 961 make substantial changes to the procedures by which federal agencies determine which areas qualify as wetlands. In combination, these changes would remove the majority of the nation's wetlands -- including many obvious and well-accepted wetlands areas -- from federal Clean Water Act protection. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Saturated wetlands lose protection. Both S. 851 and H.R. 961 require water to pond on a wetland's surface for it to be recognized as a wetland. Saturated wetlands -- areas that are wet just below the surface, but do not pond -- would not be protected as wetlands, even if a person walking through them would sink in mud. Biologically, what matters in making an area a wetland is whether the soil is saturated, not whether the ground is covered by water.
  • Wetlands ponded for less than 21 consecutive days lose protection. Some wetlands, including wetlands along rivers, are flooded or saturated repeatedly for short periods of time but do not keep water at the surface for 21 consecutive days. Under H.R. 961 all wetlands that are not ponded for 21 consecutive days during the growing season would lose all Clean Water Act protection. Similarly, S. 851 would declare non-tidal wetlands that are not ponded for 21 consecutive days to be non-wetlands.
  • Wetlands that are wet outside of the "growing season" lose protection. Both bills define the "growing season" as the frost-free period from spring through fall, when agricultural crops can grow. Many wetlands are wettest before the agricultural growing season, capturing late-winter snowmelt and early spring rains. Furthermore, many wetland plants are biologically active for weeks or months outside the agricultural growing season. Under S. 851 and H.R. 961, however, many wetlands that are flooded for many weeks or months outside the newly defined "growing season," and that perform important water-quality or flood control functions, would no longer be considered wetlands.
  • Wetlands that don't have "wetlands-only" vegetation lose protection. H.R. 961 would require the presence of plants that can only survive in wetlands in order for an area to be considered a wetland. Both bills would prohibit an area from being considered a wetland if it is dominated by plants that can survive equally well in both wetlands and non-wetlands. Some obvious wetlands that are flooded for 21 consecutive days during the growing season still would not meet these vegetative criteria.
  • New restrictions make it harder to prove that an area is a wetland. In order for an area to qualify as a wetland, both S. 851 and H.R. 961 require that clear evidence of wetlands soils, vegetation and hydrology (wetness) must be present at the time a wetlands delineation is performed--making it harder to prove that an area is a wetland if a delineation is requested during late summer or during a drought year. Furthermore, evidence of the precise duration of ponding is difficult or impossible to obtain for most wetlands. If clear evidence of precisely 21 days of ponding is unavailable at the time of a delineation, even an obvious wetland may declared to be a non-wetland.


What is the National Wetlands Coalition?

[A] Coalition of public and private sector entities interested in the development of a comprehensive wetlands policy for the nation."-- National Wetlands Coalition 1995 Lobbying Report Sheet

The National Wetlands Coalition (NWC) is a Washington, DC based organization that, over the past 5 years, has supported major rollbacks of federal laws protecting wetlands. The Coalition is composed primarily of oil and gas companies, and real estate and mining industries.

The Coalition was instrumental in the development of H.R. 1330, the "Comprehensive Wetlands Conservation and Management Act" introduced in the two previous congresses by Rep. Jimmy Hayes (R-LA). Most of the wetlands provisions in H.R. 961, the "Dirty Water" bill passed in May of 1995 by the House of Representatives, were copied directly from H.R. 1330.

Team Szabo. The Coalition is located at Van Ness, Feldman and Curtis, a law firm that specializes in energy, environmental and natural resources law. Van Ness attorney Robert G. Szabo serves as counsel to the Coalition. A former aide to Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA), Mr. Szabo also helped write the "takings" portion of the Contract with America.

Robert Szabo also represents the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC), a coalition that backs legislation that would effectively repeal the Endangered Species Act.

In May 1991, Mr. Szabo was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that it was "unfair" to characterize the NWC as an industry group, when its membership -- which included the City of Los Angeles and the Audubon Institute, a New Orleans non-profit that funds a zoo called the Endangered Species Survival Center -- proves that "it's a broad-based coalition." The City of Los Angeles resigned from the Coalition after public outcry over the effects of H.R. 1330.

Louisiana Connection. The chairman of NWC is Leighton Steward, the CEO of Louisiana Land and Exploration Corporation, the largest owner of coastal wetlands in the country. Mr. Steward is chairman of the board of the Audubon Institute and has been a member of the Coalition since 1991. A Board of Directors representing the full Coalition membership governs the NWC. Solely funded by membership dues, the Coalition collects dues reportedly ranging from $500 to $15,000 per year.

The Coalition was incorporated in September of 1989 and now has 66 members. Freeport McMoran, Inc., National Association of Homebuilders, Exxon, American Farm Bureau Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers are a few of its members. Sixteen of the 66 members are headquartered in Louisiana.