Conservation Group Sues Over Changes to Coastal Dredge Rules

Waves crash against a seawall near the Scituate Lighthouse in Scituate, Mass., in March 2018. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Amid an Atlantic hurricane season expected to be more active than normal, an environmental group claims the Trump administration illegally loosened longstanding rules protecting coastal barriers to allow beachfront developments to take sand from vulnerable areas.  

In a 32-page complaint filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court, the National Audubon Society says the Interior Department declared last October that it would begin allowing federal funding of projects that dredge sand from coastal barriers within protected coastal habitats to be transported to developed beaches outside of conservation areas.

The nonprofit environmental group claims the administration’s rule change is “not only shortsighted and environmentally destructive, but also contrary to the letter and the spirit of” the Coastal Barrier Resources Act.

Enacted in 1982, the law encourages the conservation of hurricane-prone, biologically rich coastal barriers by restricting federal expenditures that encourage development in those regions, such as federal flood insurance.

The Audubon Society claims in its lawsuit that the change to allow sand mining from the protected habitats is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, and in excess of defendants’ statutory authority.”

“Coastal barriers are undeveloped sandy landforms near the coast, such as barrier islands, sand bars, sand dunes, and coastal aquatic habitats such as wetlands and estuarine waters,” the complaint states. “These areas serve as a crucial protective buffer for the mainland from severe coastal storms and erosion, while also providing irreplaceable habitats and spawning areas for aquatic creatures and migratory birds.”

According to the lawsuit, the Interior Department resisted efforts to allow dredging from protected barriers for over 25 years prior to the Trump administration.

“In October, under pressure from members of Congress representing some coastal communities, the Department of the Interior unlawfully eviscerated Congress’s protections  without notice or justification,” it states.

In addition to the Interior Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the suit also names as defendants the heads of those agencies — David Bernhardt and Aurelia Skipwith, respectively.

Travis Annatoyn is senior counsel at the Democracy Forward Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Audubon Society. He said Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, has put special interests above environmental safety.

“Secretary Bernhardt continues to put vulnerable communities and irreplaceable wildlife and natural resources in danger in order to keep powerful interests happy,” Annatoyn said in a statement Thursday. “Turning undeveloped islands and beaches into sand mines is horrendously shortsighted, and illegal, and we will continue to fight against the Trump administration’s lawlessness.”

The FWS refers to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act as “a free-market approach to conservation” that keeps people out of harm’s way by discouraging construction in risky areas where hurricanes strike first.

According to an agency fact sheet, the law conserves coastal habitats that support a variety of fish and wildlife including migratory birds, shorebirds, finfish, shellfish, and sea turtles, while also saving taxpayers money by “restricting federal subsidies to develop — and rebuild again and again — places subject to storm surge and chronic erosion.”

A former researcher and executive at Monsanto, Skipwith previously served as the Trump administration’s deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

In a December 2019 statement on her Senate confirmation to lead the FWS, the Center for Biological Diversity called Skipwith an “unqualified industry shill” and “the most unqualified director in Fish and Wildlife Service history.”

“Skipwith’s abysmal record shows she’s ideologically opposed to the mission of the very agency she now leads,” said Stephanie Kurose, the group’s endangered species policy specialist. “She’ll always put the interests of her industry friends ahead of protecting America’s wildlife. Her confirmation is a travesty.”

Representatives for the Interior Department and FWS did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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