To issue a permit or not issue a permit: That's the Army Corps' question

  • Monday, April 1, 2013

Richard Darden, a senior manager in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District regulatory program, shows a soil sample indicating present hydrology at the Sewee Visitor And Environmental Center in Awendaw. STAFF PHOTO BY TYLER HEFFERNAN

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Most young boys dig in the dirt. Richard Darden was no different.

But, decades later, Darden – senior project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District regulatory program – is still digging. And getting a paycheck for it.

“It's challenging; it's a blast,” he said. “What would you do if you had a real job?”

One of the major duties of the regulatory program is to issue permits. The district walks the fine line between commercial growth and wetland preservation. Last year, 467 general permits were issued, as well as 106 individual permits.

Regulatory chief Tina Hadden said the district rarely turns down applications to build, but rather, they often modify them. They work under three laws: Section 10 of Rivers and Harbors Act, Section 404 of Clean Waters Act and Section 103 of Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act.

“It's very hard to put any sizeable development in South Carolina that doesn't affect a wetland,” she said.

When the district receives an application, a jurisdictional determination (JD) is assigned to assess what effect – if any – the proposed work would have on existing wetlands. A total of 1,213 JDs were completed in 2012. If there is an effect, the Corps goes forth with the permit process.

Although the regulatory program is able to rely on partnerships with consulting companies to shoulder some of the JD load, it's still a challenge to keep everyone satisfied. “People want it done yesterday,” Darden said, adding it usually takes between a week to two months to complete a full JD, depending on the scale of the project. “Everybody is environmental; everybody is green. But, not always on their land.”

It's an exhaustive assignment. The assigned regulator visits the site, takes ground samples, observes surrounding vegetation and water and consults multiple manuals to determine if building is possible without harming the environment and incurring future problems. The soil is measured by hue, value and chroma.

The assignee also takes extensive notes of his or her findings to be able to prove the analysis if legal proceedings happen. “I'm not just making stuff up,” he said. “We want to be convincing. It's not just because I said so.”

He's a proud member of the National Plant Panel, stating that there are 6,342 plants in the Southeast with each receiving an indicator status to help regulators.

Darden, the district's closest attempt at a resident Bill Nye, has had a couple unusual experiences on the job. “I knocked my wife over trying to run away from an alligator,” he said, referring to 2003 at Okefenokee Swamp, which borders Florida and Georgia. His wife is a biologist. “She still hasn't forgiven me.”

He's also been chased by a pack of llamas. In other scenarios, it's more threatening, like the time someone pulled a gun on him in Florida, before he was hired by the Charleston District in 2005.

Hadden said the job can be dangerous. Years ago, a regulator from another district who she referred to as “seasoned” died on the job. It was suspected that he got heatstroke and became disoriented, she said. Hadden immediately bought all her regulators cell phones that had GPS trackers.

Back to the process, though. On site, if samples point to non-hydrology, the regulator can determine that a permit is not needed. If samples prove there is hydrology within the first 12 inches underneath ground level and the other parameters are met, the applicant must get a permit.

But, it's not that straightforward. JDs are conducted in all types of weather, so if an area is suffering from unusual drought or heavy rainfall, regulators must also weigh the long-term conditions of the area.

If a permit is needed, the district will meet with the applicant to find possible alternatives to go ahead with building, while not sacrificing wetlands. If a wetland is compromised, a new wetland must be created as a kind of mitigation.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush created a national policy referred to as “no-net loss of wetlands,” according to the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) website. “This set the groundwork to replace each newly impacted wetland with a replacement wetland of the same size and with similar wetland functions and values.”

Five years later, the Wetlands Reserve Program was established to provide financial incentives to private landowners in order to restore “previously drained” wetlands, noted the NRCS.

The NRCS pays a per-acre easement fee and covers all the costs to restore agricultural land back to natural wetland ecosystems. It's a tricky business that sometimes results in companies having to pay large sums of money in mitigation if they incurred a lost wetland during commercial development.

People entering the permit process can call the district at 329-8044 to speak to a project manager for direct assistance Monday-Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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