Residents See Flood Scare in NV Highway Plan

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A Nevada highway project that will increase flood risks and unearth toxic materials needed an environmental impact study for approval, residents claim in Federal Court.
     The Wednesday complaint by the Upper South East Communities Coalition takes aim at a permit for a highway expansion through a flood basin in Reno, claiming that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted approval without accepting public comment or publicizing its environmental assessment report.
     In addition to permanently destroying 11 acres of wetlands within a federally classified “special flood hazard area,” the highway will disturb soil contaminated with mercury and arsenic from prior mining operations, according to the complaint.
     Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), the agency conducting the project, has said that the second phase of the expansion began on April 20.
     Though public review is mandatory for any proposed action located in a floodplain or wetland, that the corps denied the coalition’s various requests for a public hearing, that group’s attorney, Winter King, said in an interview.
     “It’s my understanding that it’s pretty rare for the corps to hold a public hearing, but it’s disappointing considering the controversy,” King said.
     A letter denying the coalition’s request says: “We do not intend to conduct a hearing or public meeting for this permit action. We do not believe there would be a valid interest served or that we would receive any substantial new information.”
     King said the city of Reno, the coalition and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe have all requested to see the corps’ reasoning for issuing a permit to the RTC.
     While the corps acknowledges the project is being built through a flood basin, it says the RTC addressed the soil-contamination issue and worked with local tribes to alleviate concerns regarding the expansion.
     The corps says the RTC redesigned the project to minimize disturbance of surface soils after the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe brought concerns about contaminating nearby Steamboat Creek.
     “Before we could make a decision, there were several critical issues that had to be addressed,” said Jason Gipson, the corps’ regulatory branch chief for Nevada and Utah, in a statement. “We believe that the RTC’s plan properly addresses cultural resource and water quality concerns and can now proceed.”
     The controversy surrounds the second phase of the project, a 4.5-mile, six-lane road being built south of Reno that will alleviate pressure from other north-south routes. On its website the RTC says the project has been discussed for over 40 years and carries an estimated price tag of $270 million.
     King and the coalition say the second phase is unnecessary, and that the city is currently widening “an exactly parallel” north-south route that is just 1.5 miles west of the project.
     The coalition brought a lawsuit over the first phase of the project two years ago as well, but in Nevada. It voluntarily dropped that complaint that November, saying on its website that it chose to focus resources on the second phase of the project.
     King said the RTC was allowed to construct the first phase without an environmental impact study, and the 1-mile “bridge to nowhere” sits unused.
     The Army Corps of Engineers declined to comment on the pending litigation.
     The coalition is represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP out of San Francisco. It is suing for violations of the Clean Water Act, seeking a preliminary injunction directing the Corps of Engineers to rescind its permit to the RTC.
     The coalition bites that it has also filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the environmental assessment that the corps performed.

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