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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Environmental Groups Say Fed Policy Promotes Coastal Development and Harms Big Fish

SEATTLE (CN) - The National Wildlife Federation claims government-sponsored flood insurance is promoting coastal development that harms Chinook salman and orca whales, while the goverment refuses to undertake a court-ordered overhaul of the program.

FEMA provides flood insurance to property owners unable to get private-sector insurance. Communities are required to adopt certain land-use restrictions to qualify for the insurance.

Federal underwriting of flood insurance has been controversial for years. Critics say it encourages development on fragile coastlands at the expense of taxpayers, who are on the hook when FEMA reimburses homeowners and businesses that knew they were building in flood-prone areas.

The environmental group first sued FEMA over this issue in 2004, claiming it violated the Endangered Species Act by encouraging destruction of habitat for listed species such as Chinook salmon and orcas.

The court found that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) "encouraged development in sensitive floodplain habitats" and ordered FEMA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop changes that would "avoid jeopardy to listed species," according to the new federal complaint.

Some of the changes include revising maps that give incentives to fill floodplains, prohibiting levees that require elimination of native vegetation and prohibiting new development in a core protected area.

The deadline for compliance was Sept. 22 this year, but instead of following the new guidelines, FEMA decided on a "three-door" approach. Under this model, communities can adopt FEMA's model ordinance, keep their floodplain regulation if it meets FEMA's new standards, or ensure on a permit-by-permit basis that individual floodplain actions do not affect listed species.

"However, many jurisdictions have failed to adopt measures or take steps to do so quite apart from the issue of whether this approach even satisfies the requirements of the FEMA BiOp [Biological Opinion]," according to the complaint.

"While FEMA has not yet implemented the changes to the NFIP as proposed in the BiOp, or any suitable alternative that avoids jeopardy, it has continued to issue flood insurance policies for new construction without interruption. According to FEMA's files, over 42,000 new structures in Puget Sound have been insured by FEMA since 2000, a significant number of them after the Court's 2004 order finding FEMA in violation of the ESA. FEMA has not altered its issuance of flood insurance since NMFS issued its jeopardy finding in 2008."

The complaint adds: "Since FEMA initiated consultation in 2004, it has issued many thousands of flood insurance policies in Puget Sound for new construction projects. Many of these policies are in jurisdictions where salmon populations are most critical to the species' recovery and/or where populations continue to decline due to habitat loss. These and other actions that make irreversible or irretrievable commitments of resources are contrary to law."

The National Wildlife Federation says FEMA "declined entirely" to adopt major changes to the flood insurance program and has implemented other changes "only partially or inadequately in a manner that simply shifts the burden to other parties without standards or oversight, and involves voluntary actions and weaker standards."

The environmental group wants an injunction preventing FEMA from issuing flood insurance policies for new development within the listed species' habitats.

They are represented by Jan Hasselman with Earthjustice in Seattle.

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