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Enviro Groups Lose Fight Over Altered Eucalyptus

(CN) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not violate environmental law by letting a biotech firm plant genetically engineered eucalyptus in seven southeastern states, a federal judge ruled.

The Sierra Club and others sued the USDA and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in July 2010 for issuing permits to Arborgen and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, both of which intervened as defendants in the case.

Other named plaintiffs are Center for Biological Diversity, Dogwood Alliance, Global Justice Ecology Project, International Center for Technology Assessment, and Center For Food Safety.

After more than a year of litigation, just one claim remains: a four-pronged violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which governs decisions that have environmental impacts, related to the issuance of permits that let Arborgen plant genetically engineered eucalyptus on 28 sites in seven southeastern states.

Both parties moved for summary judgment.

The environmentalists claimed that the agency erred by considering just two choices, granting the permits or taking no action, and said it did not deliberate "a reasonable range of alternatives," as required.

U.S. District Judge Michael Moore disagreed. "There is no brightline rule requiring an agency to consider more than two alternatives, and APHIS is not required to address every conceivable alternative," the 13-page ruling states. "A1l that is necessary is that the agency consider reasonable alternatives that meet the purpose and need of the proposed action. ... Given the very limited impact and scope of these permits, these two alternatives were sufficient."

Moore also rejected the claim that the government failed to adequately research the cumulative effects of the project.

"Plaintiffs are merely regurgitating their original flawed argument," he wrote. "NEPA regulations specifically contemplate a regime in which field testing is permitted on a limited basis so scientific information may be gathered for future decisions that might permit broader or even deregulated planting. APHIS did not need to address, as Plaintiff calls the deregulation petition, 'the elephant in the room,' because it is completely acceptable for a company to do preliminary testing that produces empirical data to support future applications or petitions for more extensive use."

While the environmentalists had said the government failed to disclose conflicting scientific information, Moore found this argument "unavailing" because "the record reflects that APHIS responded to the basic concerns of the commenters and addressed them accordingly."

Moore also found that there was "no substantial basis for real controversy" in the claims that the government failed to perform an environmental impact statement.


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