Federal Agency Reconsiders Approval for Monroe Bypass
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has informed federal and state agencies that it is reconsidering its approval of the proposed Monroe Bypass near Charlotte due to misinformation in the environmental analysis concluding there would be virtually no impact on water quality. Without the agency’s sign-off, the project cannot move forward.
Conservation groups say that, especially given the dire financial condition of North Carolina and federal budgets, transportation officials should take this opportunity to reconsider the most cost-effective, sensible options to improve mobility in the U.S. 74 corridor, rather than wasting over $700 million on a highway that will cause significant environmental degradation.
In a letter dated August 18 to the Federal Highway Administration and the N.C. Turnpike Authority, Brian Cole, Field Supervisor in the Asheville office of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), wrote that statements recently made by the agencies “contradict statements that were made to us earlier … and thus require clarification.”
For any project requiring a federal permit, the FWS must determine it will have no significant impact on threatened or endangered species, which are considered biological indicators of ecosystem health, before the project can move forward. The agency has “consistently stated our concerns” about the impacts from development and pollution in Goose Creek and Duck Creek watersheds, habitat for a federally endangered mussel, that would result from the Monroe Bypass, Cole wrote
In his letter, Cole cites documents submitted to the U.S. District Court as part of lawsuit brought last year by SELC on behalf of North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Yadkin Riverkeeper and Clear Air Carolina. Among other claims, the groups say the NC Turnpike Authority and Federal Highway Administration illegally biased the outcome of the project’s environmental study by assuming the highway already existed when they assessed the impacts of a “no-build” option. The assumption enabled the agencies to assert virtually identical environmental impacts for two drastically different scenarios: building the multi-lane, 20-mile highway with nine interchanges through the Yadkin River watershed, and not building it. Internal documents obtained through the state public records law from the Turnpike Authority and admitted in the lawsuit confirm that the agency did, in fact, make this critical error, which it had earlier denied to FWS and the public, and that the authority knew of the error when the denials were made.
“We believe that including the project and its land-use impacts in the no-build scenario confounds any attempt to compare growth attributable to the project to the background development of the area,” Cole wrote. He also said the FWS asked repeatedly for clarification, “and we were assured that the project was not included in the baseline for analysis of the no-build scenario.”
The change in the FWS’s position could significantly impact financing for the project and permits which are required for the toll highway to move forward, including the federal Clean Water Act permit which was issued based on FWS’s approval of the project.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s action is added confirmation that this project was rushed through based on an illegal effort to artificially minimize environmental impacts,” said Chandra Taylor, SELC senior attorney. “This is of particular concern given the expense of the project, including the need to charge tolls, and the existence of less expensive, common-sense options that were swept off the table from the get-go. The FWS action means that we now have the chance to take an honest look at all options.”
“The natural resource concerns at issue here cannot be brushed over,” said Tim Gestwicki, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “The FWS evaluates impacts to endangered species. That evaluation is meant to be made with science-based information, unlike what happened here. Without scientific data there’s really no way to tell what the project’s impacts are on endangered species and other flora and fauna.”
“The polluted runoff from development encouraged by this highway is both a water quality and a water quantity issue,” said Dean Naujocks, Yadkin Riverkeeper. “Our membership is very concerned that these impacts were not properly considered.”
“This project will encourage more driving, longer commutes, and more air pollution. It will also result in greater transportation and health costs for family budgets,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Charlotte based Clear Air Carolina.