601 Bridge Federal Case
In 2006 the SC Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed to widen causeways and construct four new bridges for US Highway 601 within the Congaree National Park, South Carolina’s only National Park. The project would fill wetlands that are part of a renowned ecosystem and ignored several environmental concerns including the blockage of sheetflow across the floodplain, disruption of animal migration resulting in deaths, habitat fragmentation, and altered hydrology of the floodplain.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) based on a limited Environmental Assessment (EA) which meant they were not required to give a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). We filed suit in Federal District Court to challenge the FONSI and lack of an EIS.
The Federal case was heard by Federal Judge Margaret Seymour. Judge Seymour issued her order dated September 29, 2008, ruling that the FHWA’s EA was inadequate, rife with conclusory statements and lacking the rigorous scientific analysis required by NEPA. Under NEPA, FHWA is required to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts, including cumulative impacts, flowing from a proposed project using which seeks to use federal funds. The existing US 601 crossing consists of four bridge segments plus earthen causeways through the floodplain. SC DOT proposes a new crossing adjacent to the existing crossing, and also involving a realignment of the causeway which calls for filling in 8 acres of floodplain wetlands.
Judge Seymour further ordered that the work be stopped until new appropriate environmental studies were completed.
The FHWA and SC DOT prepared a new EA in 2010, but unfortunately they again failed to consider the environmental impacts flowing from the project. The EA did not conduct one single scientific study relating to the environmental impacts of the project on the Park or the floodplain; it did not gather any additional scientific data to support its conclusions; its findings are conclusory and unsupported; it lacks scientific rigor and analysis; it fails to review reasonable alternatives; and its agency “coordination” is devoid of any attempt to address the serious concerns raised by the resource agencies, particularly the National Park Service.
The Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service and SC DNR, as well as the Plaintiffs, have explained that the proposed project will in fact have significant environmental impacts – those being blockage of sheetflow across the floodplain, disruption of animal migration resulting in deaths, habitat fragmentation, and altered hydrology of the floodplain.
In other contexts, SC DOT has stated that its policy is to bridge entire floodplains and notrather than fill floodplains for causeways. But in this case, DOT says it does not have funds to pay for bridging the entire floodplain and thus filling for causeways is the only feasible alternative.
This is an important case for SC. If filling acres of wetlands in our state’s only National Park is deemed to have no significant impacts, it would set a terrible precedent for filling all over the state.