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Landowners Mull Suit Over I-69 Project

Fri August 05, 2011 - Midwest Edition
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) Landowners along the path of the Interstate 69 extension being built through southwestern Indiana are threatening to sue state and federal agencies unless they address “serious unanswered questions” about the project, which they say violates federal law.

Those landowners and members of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads contend that the 142-mi. (228 km) highway between Indianapolis and Evansville could help send an endangered bat species to extinction, worsen air pollution and harm the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge.

Environmentalists who oppose the $3 billion project have sued previously trying to stop its construction. They contend that it will destroy forests, wetlands and farmland and harm sensitive caves and springs.

Paperwork filed in early July notifying the Indiana Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration that the landowners and the anti-I-69 group may sue is required before a lawsuit can be filed in federal court.

Mick Harrison, the group’s attorney, said the lawsuit will proceed if the agencies do not fix what they call violations of four federal laws related to the highway project — the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Transportation Act.

“In light of the serious unanswered questions, numerous violations of federal law, and new information on the harmful impacts of the I-69 highway, the Plaintiffs call for an immediate halt to the project,” Harrison said in a statement.

The highway’s opponents contend its construction will pose hazards to the endangered Indiana bat, which is already threatened by a devastating fungus that can kill bats. The highway, combined with that fungus, could “result in extinction of the species” they said in a statement.

If a lawsuit is filed, it would be the second potential hurdle created for I-69 by Bloomington organizations in recent months, the Evansville Courier & Press reported.

Earlier this year, the Bloomington Metropolitan Planning Organization tried to block the highway’s construction near the city by excluding it from its local transportation plan.

Under federal law, in order for a project to receive federal dollars, it must be included in state and regional transportation plans, as well as the plans of any local MPOs through which it passes.

The Bloomington MPO’s move excluding the project from its plan jeopardized a 27-mi. (43 km) stretch from the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center to the Bloomington area that’s estimated to cost $400 million and is expected to be completed in the next two years.

MPOs, however, must also win state transportation officials’ approval before any changes to their plans are finalized. And the Indiana Department of Transportation is refusing to give that approval.

State officials would not address the specifics of the potential lawsuit.

“INDOT follows the law, works closely with state and federal environmental agencies and doesn’t comment on potential or pending litigation,” said agency spokesman Will Wingfield.

The Bloomington-area groups’ efforts have done little to slow the project’s progress.

The highway extension is broken into six sections, with work starting on the end closest to Evansville. All of the contracts for construction of the first three sections, extending to the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, are signed.

Meanwhile, the state is soon expected to finalize plans for the fourth section, which would advance the highway’s construction up to Bloomington.

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