Wetlands often are ideal sites for building or expanding a new landfill. However, developers must compensate for the wetlands they damage or destroy, according to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Typically, a site owner uses a portion of landfill property to build a new onsite wetland.
However, one option to fulfill this obligation is called wetland mitigation banking. If onsite mitigation isn't feasible or if offsite mitigation is ecologically preferable, developers become eligible to purchase credits to help build a regional land preserve.
Wetland developers — “the bankers” who obtain permits, restore the land to its natural state and monitor it to maturity — build the banks. They also ensure that all regulatory requirements are met. The permitting process can take weeks or even months to complete, and the property will not be excavated until the permits are secured.
The cost of a single credit varies between geographic locations and depends on land costs, local covenants and the degree of difficulty to build a particular bank. However, the costs are roughly equivalent to the expense of mitigating onsite. Credits can be purchased by fractions of an acre or for as much as 100 acres.
The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as local agencies, authorities, and interest groups oversee mitigation. If these agencies approve the use of wetland credits, they can be purchased from an independent wetland banker.
Not every landfill development is a candidate for offsite mitigation, however. For example, mitigation usually must be performed within the same watershed, and each project must be reviewed and approved by governing bodies. Some wetlands are too sensitive to be disturbed, and in some areas, no bank exists.
There are several reasons to consider offsite mitigation. Ecologically speaking, a landfill is not an ideal neighbor to a highly functioning wetland. The traffic, congestion, noise and dust are threatening to the flora and fauna, which the wetland is designed to protect. Also, wetland banks often are larger than onsite mitigations and, consequently, provide a wider variety of habitats that attract and sustain more species.
From the developers' standpoint, banking credits for offsite mitigation offers several advantages. The offsite mitigation gives landfill developers and owners full use of their sites. Additionally, banking works whether the developer is creating a new wetland or expanding an existing one; developers know all their costs up front; and they are not required to spend additional money maintaining the wetlands.
And, once a bank has reached maturity, it is donated to a nonprofit organization such as a park or forestry agency, which agrees to maintain the land.
By investing in wetlands through this system, landfill owners and developers can build positive public relations while making environmental contributions.