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Greens Fight Rail Line in Rock Creek Park

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Federal Transit Administration's approval of a 16-mile Metro Purple Line project that will cut through the heart of Rock Creek Park will threaten already endangered species and ravage the landscape of Washington, D.C.'s largest park, environmentalists claim in court.

Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and two Rock Creek Park area residents sued the FTA, the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior on Tuesday in Federal Court. They claim the agencies gave their blessing to the project without taking into consideration the park's fragile ecosystem.

Most of the 1,750-acre park is north of the National Zoo. It's a sylvan delight beloved by residents of Washington and Maryland.

Among the species threatened by the project are two microscopic shrimplike amphipods - the already-endangered Hay's spring amphipod and Kenk's amphipod - that live in the voids among rock, gravel and leaf litter near springs and seeps in close proximity of planned train rails, the group says in its complaint.

"Like many underground species, the Hay's amphipod is blind and colorless, and is extremely vulnerable to human activities," the complaint states. "When it was first listed as an endangered species, the entire world population was thought to have been reduced to a single, one-meter-wide spring inside the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Since then, four additional springs and seeps inside Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. have been confirmed to be occupied by the amphipod, and three additional locations in the Park are probable sites for the species."

Dragonflies, salamanders and fish eat the amphipods.

Approval of the project also violates the Migratory Bird Treat Act because of plans to build the track close to a colony of herons, and the overhead lines and high-speed trains will destroy the park's scenic foliage and tranquility, the plaintiffs say.

"Defendants also failed to adequately consider alternatives that would avoid these grave impacts as required by both [the National Environmental Policy Act and [the Federal Aid Highway Act]," the group says. "For all of these reasons, defendants' actions are arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law, within the meaning of §706(1) of the [Administrative Procedure Act]."

The plan for the Purple Line consists of a 16-mile light rail line extending from Bethesda, Md. to the New Carrollton Metro and Amtrak station in Prince George's County.

The FTA issued a record of decision in March, declaring that requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act had been satisfied.

The FTA states in that document: "Long-term effects have been assessed for the year 2040, while short-term effects are those associated with construction activities, which have been assessed for a peak construction year of 2016 and lasting from 4 to 5 years."

But the group's complaint states: "Even if the FTA's [environmental impact statements] were adequate, given the fundamental changes, shifting designs, the decision to allow a yet to be chosen private firm to build and operate the project and the lack of a binding contract with such firm specifying the environmental compliance elements, other inadequacies raised by the plaintiffs, the FTA now must complete a supplement [environmental impact statement] at the least."

Specifically, the group wants the FTA to take "the requisite 'hard look'" at the potential impact on the two rare amphipods.

Rock Creek Park is 120 years old and covers 4.69 square miles of trees, fields, and meandering creek in the heard of the District of Columbia, from Georgetown up into Montgomery County, Md.

Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail wants the court to stop the Purple Line project until the federal government complies with federal environmental laws.

The group is represented by David Brown with Knopf Brown in Rockville, Md.

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