Not Saving the Salamander

Nearly a year after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sounded the alarm over lax federal rules governing development in the Barton Springs watershed, a new Bush Administration official has decided the rules are okay after all.

The agency's about face on its "jeopardy" opinion means no changes are in store for the Environmental Protection Agency's process of issuing storm water construction permits. Environmentalists had hoped for more restrictive measures governing development in the watershed. Theoretically, the rules are designed to protect the endangered Barton Springs Salamander from pollutants. But in a scientific opinion issued last July (which is now apparently moot), Fish & Wildlife's David Frederick stated that high levels of toxins and heavy metals were posing serious threats to the salamander. Frederick has since been transferred out of the Austin office to the regional office in Albuquerque to work on habitat conservation. He has told the Chronicle that he doesn't know if his transfer is a result of his controversial report, as local enviros have speculated. Several Fish & Wildlife holdovers from the Clinton Administration have been replaced or reassigned new job duties within the last year. This week's opinion came out of the Albuquerque regional office, where new leadership is in place.

Environmental attorney Amy Johnson expressed dismay over the agency's flip-flop. "The only thing that's changed is that we have a bunch of dead salamanders," Johnson said. Indeed, more salamanders have been found dead or diseased over the past few months, and city biologists are trying to determine the cause. Johnson represented the Save Our Springs Alliance in its lawsuit against both federal agencies, claiming they were not effectively protecting the salamander. Frederick's opinion last year was in response to part of the lawsuit's settlement terms, but this latest turn of events has left SOS leaders pondering the possibility of another lawsuit. "What we have now is Bush Administration politics trumping the science," said SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch. "But since the jeopardy opinion was issued, the science has only gotten stronger."

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