U.S. waterways plan draws lawsuit over species impacts

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Annapolis, Maryland. April 25, 2021. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger
  • Environmental group says federal Marine Highway program increases risks of harm to imperiled species

(Reuters) - A U.S. plan to expand the commercial use of navigable waterways increases risks to already imperiled species like the North Atlantic right whale, an environmental group claims in a lawsuit filed in Newport News, Virginia federal court on Tuesday.

The Center for Biological Diversity accuses the U.S. Maritime Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, of violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with its America's Marine Highway program by failing to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure the program does not jeopardize species protected under the statute.

The Center for Biological Diversity says that many of the marine highways are located in critical habitats for ESA-listed species, including humpback whales and leatherback sea turtles.

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The program, which is more than a decade old, received a nearly $11 million boost this year to incentivize shippers to use its 25,000-mile network of navigable waterways, rather than congest roads. The Center for Biological Diversity says this could lead to more ship strikes and other dangers to ESA-listed species.

The Maritime Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement that the federal government "can't keep sacrificing our waters and wildlife by ignoring the impacts of a program that has the potential to cause widespread harm."

The Marine Highway program was established in 2007 to help alleviate road congestion by developing marine corridors. Its designated waterways often run alongside major highways and can serve as alternatives to shipping goods on land.

In May, the Maritime Administration announced it was making available $10.8 million in grant funding, including to grow vessel traffic on the marine highways, which run on water bodies such as rivers, bays and coastal areas of oceans.

One project that applied for some of the funds is the James River Container Expansion Project, which shuttles goods on the James River in Virginia. The project seeks to expand an existing container shipping service.

The river is a designated critical habitat for a "distinct population segment" of Atlantic sturgeon that is listed as endangered under the ESA and is susceptible to vessel strikes, according to the lawsuit.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity v. United States Maritime Administration, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, No. 4:21-cv-00132.

For Center for Biological Diversity: Hannah Connor and Jared Margolis with the Center for Biological Diversity

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