West Palm Beach Says Feds Approved Road Project That Imperils Protected Wetlands

(CN) – The city of West Palm Beach, Florida, claims in court that four different federal agencies green-lighted a roadway project that will imperil protected wetlands and the endangered species that live within them.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the city claims the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Federal Highway Administration failed to comply with federal law when they gave their blessing to a proposed extension of State Road 7 in West Palm Beach.

“Together, these agencies funded and issued approvals for a roadway project that allows for the direct and indirect destruction of hundreds of acres of federally protected wetlands, the loss of degradation of habitat for multiple endangered species, the introduction of nutrient laden stormwater into a low nutrient wetland, and multiple other direct, indirect and cumulative impacts to the regional ecosystem,” the complaint says.

The proposed project would extend the existing road by 8.5 miles, in the process damaging “an immaculate remnant of the Everglades that serves as a major source of public drinking water,” the city says.

It argues that Congress passed several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, to ensure federal agencies carefully consider the environmental impacts of project proposals that come before them.

According to the complaint, the four defendant agencies approved the roadway project in West Palm Beach “without fully evaluating environmental impacts or the viability of less harmful alternative alignments.”

The city says the Federal Highway Administration signed off on funding the project without reviewing it in detail, and even though other agencies recommended further review.

Although the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed concern with the environmental impacts of the project, and lack of vigorous review by the highway administration, they still approved it; and in doing so they relied on a flawed and outdated analysis prepared by the Florida Department of Transportation, the complaint says.

The city says the federal agencies also disregarded the impact that the nutrients and other pollutants discharging from the project’s stormwater management system would have on the Grassy Waters Preserve, a 23-square mile area that encompasses a portion of State Road 7 and the proposed extension.

The Grassy Waters Preserve is habitat to several endangered species such as wood storks, red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes, white ibises, little blue herons and it serves as a “critical nesting and foraging area” for the Everglade snail kite, a bird of prey, the city says.

High levels of nutrients and pollutants could endanger the survival of the snail kite in the preserve, the lawsuit says.

The city says that in March 2017, asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take another look at the project, but that the agency failed to do so.

The city is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on claims of violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

It’s is represented by Rafe Petersen from Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, DC.

A representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida office was not available for comment.

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