RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A federal appeals court has put the brakes on plans for a new North Carolina toll road after a lawsuit found that the state Department of Transportation relied on flawed data in their environmental impact analysis.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Clean Air Carolina and Yadkin Riverkeeper sued the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in federal district court for alleged violations of the National Environmental Protection Act.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled that the road could proceed. However, the ruling was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit where it was vacated and remanded back to federal court.
The appeals court found that the state DOT violated federal policy that requires detailed environmental analysis for new roadways, in this case the proposed $725 million Monroe Connector-Bypass.
Writing the majority opinion, Judge Diana Motz said that the state agencies “failed to disclose critical assumptions… and instead provided the public with incorrect information.”
At issue is a study the state relied on that mischaracterized the environmental conditions in two scenarios: if the road were built versus if it were not built. The problem, the plaintiffs alleged, was that the “no build” scenario actually took into account that the road would indeed be built, lessening the actual environmental impacts.
In their ruling, the appellate court noted that various groups, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, repeatedly questioned the data in the study and whether it was done correctly.
“Rather than take these opportunities to make ‘candid acknowledgement’ of what they knew to be the truth, the agencies maintained that the ‘no build’ data did not include (the road),” Motz wrote.
During the litigation of the initial lawsuit, the state DOT admitted that the data was inaccurate, but maintained that because they conducted a thorough study and received public input, construction should move forward. The appeals court ruling requires that the agencies and the public have the opportunity to “fully (and publicly) evaluate the ‘no build’ data.”