Like a circling hawk spotting field mice, Charles Costello sits
at his computer gazing at aerial photos of Massachusetts
countryside, swooping in electronically on the bad guys who rip up
this state's delicate wetlands.
This is no video game. Certainly not to Mr. Costello, a soft-
spoken bureaucrat with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental
Protection (DEP), who hunts environmental scofflaws from a tiny
Boston office cluttered with blowups of aerial photographs and
technical manuals. Using photo-analysis software of the sort used by
the Defense Department to spot enemy tanks, he scans his computer
screen for telltale red dots.
The dots signal him to zoom in to see, for example, if a parking
lot now sits on former marshland. Such skills have transformed him
and his agency into a nemesis to those who illegally bulldoze
wetlands. Often, he tracks and catches them by surprise - even years
after their dirty deed.
The first state in the nation to use such technology for wetlands
enforcement, Massachusetts is blazing a trail that other states -
and even national environmental groups - are likely to follow. The
system is relatively affordable and far more comprehensive than
relying on tips phoned in by citizens. And in the case of
Massachusetts, despite deep cuts in the state budget, the new
"smoking gun" photographic evidence is allowing it to flex its
enforcement muscle - and bring cash into state coffers at the same
Massachusetts' advance also comes at a critical moment as
political will to protect the nation's wetlands seems at a tipping
point. After uncertainty and slippage in enforcement following a
2001 US Supreme Court ruling, observers say, the US Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) last month affirmed its commitment to
enforce the Clean Water Act with respect to certain "isolated"
wetlands. Pressure is also rising on state and federal agencies like
the EPA to demonstrate their effectiveness in dollars, observers
say. Wetlands managers will attend a federal conference in March to
discuss new cost-effective techniques for monitoring wetlands and
enforcing protection laws.
"This is the kind of enforcement tool we've needed," says Robert
Golledge Jr., commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP. "Photographs
like these are very clear to a jury - it's easy for them to see
what's been done."
Sometimes, the data are shocking. Massachusetts officials were
aghast to find that more than 3,000 locations had been filled
between 1991 and 2001 - a net loss of more than 700 acres of
wetlands that they previously had not known about. At least half of
those locations involved illegal actions, officials say. It was a
rude awakening for a state that had prided itself on a tough permit
system designed for "no net loss" of a single acre of wetlands.
"Many of these places are way back, deep in the woods, where
these people think nobody will see," says Cynthia Giles, assistant
commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP. "Now they'll know we're out
there, and we can find them."
Model for other states
By becoming first in the nation to digitize its aerial maps of
the state, then link them to a computer database for wetlands
protection, Massachusetts has dramatically raised the level of
detection and lowered the costs of enforcement. The DEP's sharp
before-and-after photos are more convincing to juries than paper
maps, officials say. It's an innovation that has suddenly given
wetlands regulators sharper teeth.
On Dec. 10 Costello's efforts paid off when his agency announced
fines totaling $280,000 against two companies: an auto parts company
and a concrete company, accused of filling three acres of wetlands. …