WASHINGTON – The Trump administration changed a 25-year-old policy to make it easier for coastal communities to take sand from protected ecosystems to improve their beaches.
The shift makes it cheaper for some of the wealthiest communities in the country to replenish their beachfronts, which are increasingly under threat from more frequent and intense storms, rising seas and other effects of climate change. Critics say that comes at the expense of vulnerable coastal ecosystems.
"Undeveloped coastal islands and beaches will now be opened up to sand mining that will imperil birds and other wildlife, destroy important habitat and reduce the protections these places provide against impacts of storms and erosion," said Karen Hyun, vice president for coastal conservation at the National Audubon Society, in a statement.
In 1982, Congress established the Coastal Barrier Resources System, which protects 1.4 million acres of land around the country from development. The Interior Department has long said that the law prohibited using federal money to remove sand from those zones to replenish beaches elsewhere.
In a letter this week to Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he had reversed that position. Last month, Van Drew met with the secretary to request the change.
"This flawed interpretation of the law has prevented a number of coastal storm damage reduction projects," Bernhardt wrote this week to Van Drew, who represents communities in southern New Jersey that stand to benefit from the new policy.
"The Trump Administration is committed to protecting our coastlines and utilizing our available resources to restore, enhance or stabilize our beaches consistent with the law Congress wrote," Bernhardt said in a statement released by Van Drew's office this week.
Late last month, Van Drew was one of two Democrats to vote against opening an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, Melissa Brown, said in a statement that "There is absolutely no connection whatsoever" between the vote and the letter from Bernhardt.
The communications director for Van Drew, Mackenzie Lucas, wrote in an e-mail, "These things have nothing to do with one another." Noting that Van Drew has long opposed impeachment, the spokesperson wrote, "it is absurd to think that the Congressman would trade his vote for some sand."
Beyond the threat posed to protected coastal zones, critics said the policy shift would also encourage more property development in beach towns at risk of flooding, or even becoming uninhabitable in the long term, because of climate change.
They say the cost of that development will fall on taxpayers, who fund not just the beach renourishment projects but also the programs required to support those communities, such as federal flood insurance and disaster recovery programs.