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Florida wants to control wetlands permitting. Critics say it isn’t equipped to do the job

Florida’s bid to take over wetlands permitting across the state will undergo two virtual federal hearings beginning Wednesday.

The Clean Water Act requires federal permitting to preserve vanishing wetlands, which protect drinking water supplies, blunt damage from storms and hurricanes, and provide habitat for wildlife. Up until now, the permitting job has fallen on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But in August, the state applied to take over, alarming environmentalists who fear Florida’s smaller Department of Environmental Protection won’t be equipped to do the work.

Only two other states oversee their own wetlands permitting, Michigan and New Jersey, said Earthjustice attorney Tania Galloni.

“Those states also spent millions and millions of dollars to create their programs,” she said. “Florida is saying it could do it without asking the legislature for a single penny.”

Environmentalists worry the move will increase the loss of wetlands to development at a moment when Florida, already threatened by sea rise, can least afford it. In addition to recharging the state's aquifers, wetlands suck up huge amounts of carbon — between $2 and $3.4 billion worth just in Everglades National Park mangroves.

“This whole thing is about shortcuts,” Galloni said. “It's about shortcutting the time for consideration and the level of review. We need checks and balances.”

In its application, Florida says it intends to have its existing staff of 229 employees, who now handle environmental permitting across the state, take over the duties. The state says the its own environmental permitting overlaps with wetland permitting, so the additional permitting duties should only generate about 15 percent more work.

Florida also intends to re-assign 18 employees who earn about $35,000 a year to do the permitting, according to an analysis submitted with the application.