The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District Regulatory Branch, does more than issue permits. Last year alone, it completed over 1,700 actions that covered permits plus more of what the team does on a daily basis: investigate violations, determine jurisdiction, along with permit compliance inspections and pre-application meetings.
The branch, covering six counties in Illinois and 2.5 counties in Indiana, is broken up into three teams with a staff of 16: Indiana Permits and Enforcement Team, West Permits and Enforcement Section, and East Permits and Enforcement Section.
All federal actions, including issuing permits, require compliance with federal laws such as Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbor Act. And, according to Keith Wozniak, Regulatory Branch chief, the regulatory program is committed to protecting the nation’s aquatic resources and navigation capacity, while allowing reasonable development through fair and balanced decisions.
“For Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a proposed road, residential or commercial development, shoreline stabilization, utility or any other type of project that involves a discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States requires a permit,” he said. “And that includes wetlands, streams, lakes, or other aquatic resources. For Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, that means we must ensure that a proposed structure or other activities in, above, or below a navigable water will not impede navigation.”
Other federal laws also include the Endangered Species Act and Historic Preservation Act. “So before issuing a permit, we have to ensure the proposal complies with those laws,” Paul Leffler, team leader for the Indiana section, said. “This requires close coordination with our federal and state partners like U.S. EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and our State Historic Preservation offices.”
He said the best part of his job is the field work. “The best part of Regulatory is we get out in the field a lot and get to see our entire district on the ground,” Leffler said. “We get to see some of our most beautiful nature preserves as well as nasty violations and contaminated sites. We also regularly meet with different stakeholders proposing all kinds of projects.”
Mike Machalek, senior enforcement officer in the West Permits and Enforcement Section, said some of his working relationships date back to 1991 — the year he started working for the district. He’s also the only person working enforcement and jurisdictional determinations for all six counties in Illinois.
“I have a good network of people that I work with,” he said. “And I rely on both county building and zoning inspectors, and county National Resources Conservation Service offices to be my eyes and ears. I also rely on the approximately 100 engineering and environmental consultants, some of whom I’ve worked with my entire career. With all of us having these long-standing relationships, it makes everything easier, along with the ability to handle a lot of conflicts with a simple phone call.”
Kathleen Chernich, chief of the East Section, said that a regulatory project manager (PM), assigned to one county, is in a multidiscipline position that’s divided into several areas of expertise. She explained that PMs not only ensure that regulations and permit requirements are being adhered to, but also are trained to conduct and document regulatory determinations; review, evaluate and permit applications for work impacting jurisdictional resources in accordance with program regulations and policies; and conduct compliance inspections on permitted work. And being a good communicator is also key.
“Open and transparent communication with federal, state and local agencies, conservation groups and nonprofits, congressional districts, media, stakeholders of the nation’s waters, applicants and their consultants, project engineers, and mitigation bankers, to name a few, is part of their daily schedule,” she said.
PMs also investigate, document, and respond to unauthorized activities such as fill in wetlands, and the installation of structures in U.S. waters without prior authorization from the Corps. That’s where Machalek comes in. “The numbers don’t include the hundreds of jurisdictional determinations that I do every year,” he said. “A typical office day is a combination of emails, phone calls, and data entry in our system for new projects. Then, for example, there can be 14 different types of wetlands on one parcel. That’s when I follow it up with a field day to walk the property, look at all wetlands individually, and make the call if they’re under federal or county jurisdiction.”
He then takes his field notes, enters it all into the computer, and makes a final call on the jurisdiction status (i.e. isolated wetland under county jurisdiction or federal jurisdiction). “Pretty much that means which ones are under federal authority and which ones are not,” Machalek said.
He added that, with the public, he sees his job as more educational. And it works both ways. “It’s amazing how well informed the public is regarding wetlands,” he said. “They also school us. We get calls almost every day from the public reporting on someone that they believe is filling or destroying wetlands. They, as are we, are aware of the value of wetlands for wildlife, stormwater storage, and aesthetics. And that’s a good thing.”