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Interior Dept. poring over 200,000 comments in days

Rushing to ease endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office, Interior Department officials are attempting to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours, according to an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has called a team of 15 people to Washington this week to pore through letters and online comments about a proposal to exclude greenhouse gases and the advice of federal biologists from decisions about whether dams, power plants and other federal projects could harm species. That would be the biggest change in endangered species rules since 1986.

In an e-mail last week to Fish and Wildlife managers across the country, Bryan Arroyo, the head of the agency's endangered species program, said the team would work eight hours a day starting Tuesday to the close of business Friday to sort through the comments. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's office, according to the e-mail, will be responsible for analyzing and responding to them.

The public comment period ended last week, which initiated the review.

It usually takes months to review public comments on a proposed rule, and by law the government must respond before a rule becomes final.

“It would seem very difficult for them in four days to respond to so many thoughtful comments in an effective way,” said Eric Biber, an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall told the AP on Tuesday that the short time frame was requested by Kempthorne.

He said the goal was to have the rule to the White House by early November. In May, the administration set a Nov. 1 deadline for all final regulations.

How fast the rule is finished could determine how hard it is to undo.

A new administration could freeze any pending rules. But if the regulation is final before the next president takes office, reversing it would require going through the entire review and public comment period again – a process that could take months and that sometimes has taken years.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama already has said he would reverse the proposal. Congress also could overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer. Sen. John McCain's campaign has not taken a position.

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