Natural Resources and Environment:

Status of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Efforts to Implement GAO's 2007 Recommendations Regarding Its Section 214 Authority

GAO-10-385R: Published: Feb 19, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 22, 2010.

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When cities, counties, or other nonfederal public entities propose public works projects that could degrade or damage federally regulated waters and wetlands, such as road construction and sewer line construction or maintenance, they must obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) before proceeding. Under authorities delegated to the Corps from Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agency is responsible for regulating activities that may impact wetlands, streams, and other waters throughout much of the United States and it decides whether to allow such activities to occur. To obtain the Corps' approval, the nonfederal public entity, like any other property owner, must submit a permit application that contains a description of the proposed project, including its purpose and location, and other information the Corps needs to evaluate how the project will affect wetlands and other federally regulated waters. Once the Corps receives all of the required information from the applicant, the permit review process begins. Some policymakers and others have expressed concerns that the Corps' permit process takes too long and has significantly delayed some public works projects. In 2000, the Congress included a provision in the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) to expedite permit processing for nonfederal public entities. Specifically, section 214 of the act authorizes the Secretary of the Army, after providing public notice, to accept and expend funds from nonfederal public entities--known as funding entities--to expedite the evaluation of permit applications that fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army. As GAO reported in May 2007, these funds primarily go toward supporting the salaries of Corps program managers who will dedicate their efforts to reviewing the permit applications from funding entities. The act also requires the Secretary to ensure that the funds accepted will not impact impartial decision making with respect to permit approvals. The Secretary of the Army has delegated this authority to the Corps and, in turn, the Corps has delegated day-to-day responsibility for implementing the section 214 authority to its 38 districts, which have responsibility for processing permit applications.

The Corps has clarified the documentation that must be included in section 214 project files. GAO believes that the Corps has taken appropriate steps to ensure that the documentation that district officials include in project files will justify and support their permitting decisions. Specifically, the Corps has completed a checklist, or template, of the decision documents necessary to support its general, or nationwide, permitting process, and it tested this tool in some of its districts. The Corps has provided training on the section 214 authority. The Corps held training sessions in August 2007 and May 2008 at national conferences attended by all regulatory staff, during which the following topics relating to the section 214 authority were discussed and clarified: the revised guidance in draft form, expectations regarding impartial decision making and disclosure of decisions to the public, and the annual reporting process. The Corps has not fully implemented an effective oversight approach for the section 214 authority.

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