PORTLAND, Ore. (CN)- Environmentalists and community activists say in two lawsuits that federal and state authorities have not fully studied the potential harm from the planned construction of a new bridge crossing the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.
The controversial Columbia River Crossing project will consist of a new bridge between the borders of Washington and Oregon, which is divided by the Columbia River.
The project also includes plans to extend public transportation from Portland to Vancouver, Washington, and improve lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. Construction could begin as early as 2013.
Authorities now face two more challenges to the hotly debated project, which is believed to cost as much as $3.6 billion and take six years of construction.
Two lawsuits were filed in Oregon District Court on Monday challenging the government’s approval of the bridge project.
The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration are the lead federal agencies in the project. Both lawsuits name as defendants those agencies and their administrators in Oregon and Washington.
One lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of residents on Hayden Island, a neighborhood between two bridges and a freeway interchange in Portland. The plaintiffs say the government has not properly studied how the project will negatively affect the residents of a manufactured home community there.
Attorney Tanya Sanerib with Crag Law Center said the action is a classic example of a “David and Goliath” story, as the multi-billion dollar project will affect a number of residents who have low or fixed incomes, are disabled, or are without transportation.
“There’s a lot of analysis about what the project will do in the long-run, but there’s been very little consideration given to what’s going to happen to this community, which is going to be impacted by this project for a very long time,” Sanerib told Courthouse News.
The Hayden Island residents are concerned with the negative air quality effects that result from construction and traffic. Some of the manufactured homes are only 50 feet from where construction is to take place, Sanerib said.
The government did not disclose or analyze air quality emissions from construction, or how those emissions would affect the health of Hayden Island residents, according to the complaint.
“In responding to the comments of Hayden Island residents on the draft [environmental impact statement], defendants failed to address concerns about the impacts of the construction on the Island and its residents. Instead, the comments state a general commitment to mitigating the impacts of the project, and directs the community to Chapter 3 of the final [impact statement],” the complaint says.
“Chapter 3 of the final [statement] is 460 pages long.”
The complaint also says the impact statement does not adequately address noise pollution, the loss of a Safeway store, and the availability of emergency medical access during construction.
“All we’re asking is that the government satisfy its obligations under federal law and conduct a thorough analysis of the health and livability impacts facing this poor but proud community,” Jonathan Ostar, director of Organizing People-Activating Leaders said in a statement.
It continued: “It’s the government’s job to explore alternatives, and as necessary, apply appropriate mitigation, and they must also ensure that as a community and as a region, we are fully informed. This lawsuit was always a last option, and they forced our hand.”
In a second action, two environmentalist groups and a Portland neighborhood coalition sued over the government’s failure to study the impact the bridge project would have on salmon, among other things.
The environmental groups Coalition for a Livable Future and Northwest Environmental Defense Center name the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and its regional administrator as defendants, in addition to federal transportation authorities.
The plaintiffs say the Fisheries Service’s biological opinion stated that the project would kill salmon, but the report “arbitrarily concludes that this project will not jeopardize the continued existence of any of those threatened species.”
“However, the defendants in fact do not know and have never attempted to determine how many salmon are already cumulatively being taken by the hundreds of other projects that NMFS has already approved on the Columbia River and its tributaries.”
The Portland community organization Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods also joined the suit, saying the government’s failure to study air pollution or address traffic concerns will affect the ability to bicycle near the project, among other things.
The Columbia River Crossing website says the project aims to improve air quality by 2030 through a reduction of traffic congestion, improvements for cyclists and pedestrians, among other things. Authorities believe the project will lead to a decrease in toxic air emissions, “primarily due to cleaner fuels, cleaner engines and more fuel efficient vehicles,” the website says.
Attorney Tom Buchele from Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center said there was “virtually no science” in the first environmental impact statement, which he called “remarkable.”
Buchele told Courthouse News there are ways to study the cumulative effects that in-water projects like the Columbia River Cross have on salmon populations, but the federal agencies have not done so.
“The rivers are sort of like an obstacle course for the fish now,” Buchele said.
“We keep putting up more and more hurdles. How many more can we expect them to jump over? At some point it’s going to be too much, and they won’t be able to.”