By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – A conservative conservation group filed a lawsuit Tuesday over the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, saying the project threatens endangered species in and around the Potomac River.
The National Wilderness Institute, a Washington-based think tank, charged that five federal agencies failed to enforce the Endangered Species Act in approving the Wilson Bridge and another Washington project — the Washington Aqueduct — because it was “inconvenient” for them.
Federal officials who responded to the suit Tuesday dismissed claims that they had bypassed the Endangered Species Act State when approving the two projects. Maryland officials said they did not think the suit would delay progress of the seven-year Wilson Bridge project.
Rob Gordon, the executive director of the institute, said in a prepared statement that the suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington in an effort to force “consistent Application of the ESA (Endangered Species Act).”
“We will show that, in this case, the federal government has and is currently taking actions that directly threaten the existence of endangered species,” including the bald eagle, the shortnose sturgeon and the dwarf wedge mussel, Gordon said.
“What’s good for rural Maryland. . .is good for Washington, D.C.,” he added. “The same standards of the Endangered Species Act that are applied everywhere else need to be applied here.”
Gordon said the institute had been investigating the environmental implications of the Wilson Bridge construction for over a year, and he noted that the timing of the lawsuit was not intended to stymie the construction of the bridge.
The Wilson Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 over the Potomac River, is a bottleneck on the Capital Beltway and traffic far exceeds its capacity. The aqueduct diverts water from the Potomac for use in Washington, D.C., and parts of Northern Virginia, said the group, and tons of sediment from its operation threaten wildlife in the river.
Construction began last fall on two replacement spans for the Wilson Bridge, with final completion expected by 2006.
The Maryland State Highway Administration anticipates that the lawsuit will not thwart progress on the Wilson Bridge, said spokeswoman Valerie Edgar.
The lawsuit should have no immediate impact because the state, which is responsible for building the span, was not named as a defendant. Unless a court order halts further construction, the building will continue as scheduled with the next phase set to begin in late April, she said.
The suit named the U.S Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Transportation Department denied that it was negligent in adhering to environmental laws while overseeing the Wilson Bridge project, said Federal Highway Administration spokesman Jim Pinkelman.
“The Federal Highway Administration and its partner agencies have performed environmental studies on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project, all of which have led to full compliance with the Endangered Species Act and related environmental laws,” Pinkelman said.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Hugh Vickery said he could not comment on ongoing litigation.
The suit is not the first potential hurdle to be placed in front of the $2.2 billion bridge project this week. The Maryland Department of Transportation announced Monday that it would extend the bid submission deadline for the next phase of construction until Feb. 22.
The extension was issued while state officials wait to receive federal approval for the project labor agreement forged between Gov. Parris Glendening and labor unions on the project. It came on the heels of rumors that President Bush may issue an executive order banning the use of such labor agreements on federal transportation projects.