By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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When Ann Richards first ran for governor in 1990, she told Texas voters that she had "always worked to protect our environment." But these days, as a high-profile corporate lobbyist, Richards has a decidedly different agenda: pushing a shopping mall projectfor the Mills Corporation that would destroy 206 acres of protected New Jersey wetlands.
The Meadowlands Mills would be the largest mall in New Jersey, with 2.1-million square feet of retail space. But approval is far from certain, as the project has run into stiff opposition from environmental groups and at least two federal agencies.
Last year, in an effort to bolster its case, Mills hired Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, a prominent Washington, D.C.based law firm, to represent it in front of a smorgasbord of federal and state agencies that have a say in the development of the wetlands. By hiring Verner, Liipfert, the megamall developer obtained the services of Richards, who is being paid an estimated $385 per hour to in-fluence federal and state regulators on Mills's behalf.
By all accounts, Richards is doing a good job for Mills. She has also succeeded in irritating environmentalists in New Jersey.
"I wish she'd go back down there and leave us alone," says Bill Cahill, an attorney at the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing a host of environmental organizations protesting the planned location of the mall.
Cahill says the site Mills has chosen, which lies just east of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, is the largest contiguous tract of wetlands in New Jersey and is used by more than 50 different species of birds. If Mills succeeds in pushing its project through, he says, it will "be the largest fill of estuarial wetlands in the Northeast since the passage of the Clean Water Act."
In addition to resistance from local environmentalists, Richards and Mills face significant hurdles at the federal level. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have expressed concern about the project. In a letter last November to the New York district office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Andrew A. Rosenberg, the regional administrator for the Marine Fisheries Service, wrote: "We must conclude that the proposed project will have a substantial and unacceptable impact to aquatic resources of national importance. We recommend that the permit for this project be denied."
Karen Greene, a biologist at the Marine Fisheries Service, explains that Mills, under the rules of the Clean Water Act, must be able to show that the mall cannot reasonably be located elsewhere. So far, Greene says, the company hasn't done that.
"This is an extremely large development project that doesn't appear to have any justifiable purpose and need," says Greene. "And we are not willing to sacrifice those wetlands for this project."
Mills has promised to refurbish 380 acres of nearby marshes in exchange for being allowed to fill the 206 acres of wetlands. But before the mall developer will be allowed to put 2.5-million cubic yards of fill material in the Hackensack wetlands -- an amount that would completely fill the Astrodome -- it will have to get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps is one of a half-dozen agencies that are working through what's known as a Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), which will determine the future use of the wetlands and provide a growth plan for the 14 towns in the Meadowlands region. The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Marine Fisheries Service and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection all have a say in the management plan.
Shortly after it was disclosed that Richards would be lobbying on the project, Mills spokesman Bob Sommer told reporters that the former Texas governor's job was to "help make sure governmental agencies work cooperatively."
Late last year, Richards and her former aide in the governor's office, Jane Hickey, who also works for the Verner, Liipfert firm, met with EPA regional administrator Jeanne Fox to discuss the Meadowlands project. Richards has also met with EPA chief Carol Browner.
Both Richards and Mills officials refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. When approached after a speech she gave at the University of Texas on August 27, Richards refused to say whether or not the Meadowlands project was good for the environment.
"I have talked to Carol Browner not about the specific project, but about whether or not they are going to get their SAMP," said Richards as she walked to her car, keys in hand. "Frankly, I don't know when that's going to happen. All of that is under the aegis of the Corps of Engineers. So what the Mills Corporation wants -- and what they frankly deserve -- is for the governmental entities to decide what they are going to do with the property. And if the property is going to be commercially developed, they want the opportunity to do that."
Perhaps the highest-profile critic of the project is Bobby Kennedy Jr., a law professor at Pace University in New York and legal adviser to the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers. A prominent advocate of environmental causes, Kennedy calls the Hackensack wetlands "a fish-flesh factory. It produces more fish per gallon, more pounds of fish per acre than any other water body on earth."