Wetlands Get New Spy Cam

By Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Wetlands Get New Spy Cam


Mark Clayton writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 time.

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. …

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