New Data Shows Proposed U.S. 460 Would Destroy Almost Four Times the Wetlands Originally Estimated
The Virginia Department of Transportation and its contractor have submitted an application for the proposed new U.S. Route 460 from Petersburg to Suffolk seeking permission to destroy 479 acres of wetlands—nearly four times the estimate in the project’s Environmental Impact Statement. This means that the $1.4 billion, 55-mile section of new highway would result in what appears to be the largest wetlands loss from any Virginia transportation project since the Clean Water Act and its wetlands review became law in 1972.
Wetlands are essential to ecological health, and filling them in and paving them over destroys wildlife and bird habitat, degrades water quality, and would severely compromise the storm-prone area’s natural resistance to storms and flooding.
“Earlier estimates of wetland destruction from the proposed new Route 460 were already too high a price to pay for this unnecessary, wasteful project,” said Trip Pollard, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “VDOT’s new estimate is shocking, and the proposal’s many flaws now completely overwhelm its limited benefits.”
The new highway would parallel the existing four-lane Route 460, which is sparsely traveled.
In addition, VDOT has, without public input, dramatically expanded the footprint for a key alternative to the new road— improving the existing Route 460—from a widening to five lanes to a widening to eight lanes. Despite the fact that important aspects of the environmental reviews are just getting underway and alternatives are still being considered, VDOT and its contractor are proceeding with design work, right-of-way acquisition, and plans to begin construction of the new road in Spring 2014, even though Federal Highway Administration regulations prohibit final design or construction prior to completing environmental review.
VDOT is required to receive a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pursuant to Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act to impact any wetlands; the Corps can only grant a permit to the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Even before the new estimate, the Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had expressed concerns about the wetlands impacts of the project.
The new estimate of 479 acres of wetlands losses is much higher than several other Virginia proposals previously rejected because of severe impacts on aquatic resources, including the proposed Southeastern Parkway in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach that would have destroyed 170 acres of wetlands—approximately one third of what is being proposed for the new U.S. 460.
The Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter yesterday to the Federal Highway Administration calling for further scrutiny of wetland impacts and alternatives to the project, and calling for a halt to final design, right-of-way acquisition, and planned construction activities that are premature and prejudicing the evaluation of alternatives.
“Given all of the new developments, much more work is needed analyzing wetlands impacts and the option of improving existing Route 460, and work on the project should be limited until essential reviews are completed,” said Pollard. “VDOT jumped the gun by signing a contract before it had the permits for this project, and is putting taxpayers and the environment at risk. What is really needed is to pull the plug on an expensive, unnecessary highway with unprecedented wetlands impacts.”