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Reno's Controversial Highway Extension Goes Back to 9th Cir

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 22, 2015 10:59 AM

Reno's SouthEast Connector was first proposed in the 1950s. Since then, it's remained controversial -- and unbuilt. The six-lane highway expansion between Reno and neighboring Sparks, Nevada, would follow along the local Steamboat Creek, potentially relieving traffic congestion, possibly spreading old mercury pollution, and unquestionably resulting in local wetland fill.

Now, more than six decades after its proposal and halfway into its construction, a local environmental coalition is going before the Ninth Circuit in a last ditch attempt to stop the road expansion.

One Road, a Lot of Paperwork

The SouthEast Connector is a proposed 4.5 mile, six-lane highway expansion stretching between Reno and its eastern neighbor. Since the project would require the Regional Transportation Commission in Washoe County to fill in and pave over wetlands, it requires federal permits. Under the Clean Water Act, any wetland infill must obtain a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That permitting process also triggers environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Under NEPA, federal agencies like the Corps must complete an Environmental Impact Statement when taking actions which could have "significant effects" on the quality of the environment. Here, however, the Corps decided to skip the EIS. It produced a smaller, much less searching "Environmental Assessment" instead, based on based on its view that the road would have no significant environmental impacts. While an EIS is a public document, the Corps has required environmental groups to submit Freedom of Information Act requests in order to obtain the Environmental Assessment.

Don't Mind the Mercury

It's that lack of an EIS that environmentalists are challenging in court. The Upper Southeast Communities Coalition sued for an emergency injunction to stop construction of the highway. According to the Coalition, the Corps ignored repeat EPA warnings about "the project's potential mercury impacts on nearby aquatic systems." Much of Nevada's land remains tainted by mercury, a result of its Gold Rush past.

Further, the group argues that the project threatens protected wildlife species like endangered trout and bald eagles. The Regional Transportation Commission, for its part, says that the environmental benefits of the program outweigh its costs. The RTC points to mitigation measures like erosion controls, replacement wetlands, and deed restrictions on future development to argue that the SouthEast Connector is a highway even Mother Nature could like.

The Ninth Circuit heard arguments over the highway and its environmental review on Monday. If they're convinced by the Coalition, they could issue an injunction halting. The circuit denied an earlier attempt to do just that in July.

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