Environmental Groups Sue U.S. Over Flood Management


The National Wildlife Federation filed a motion in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, asking a judge to stop the U.S. government from issuing any more flood insurance policies for new development in flood-prone areas around the Puget Sound until it changes its flood plain plans to consider the impact on endangered species like salmon and orcas.

The motion for a preliminary injunction is the latest move in a decades-long fight to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay more attention to endangered species, said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that filed a motion in Seattle, on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation.

The environmental group won a lawsuit in 2004 that found FEMA did not create its flood plain management standards with the Endangered Species Act in mind. Hasselman said the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2008 issued a plan for changing the flood standards, setting various deadlines, the last of which recently passed.

“They’re continuing to issue flood plain insurance for new developments in flood plains, incentivizing activities not just harmful to salmon, but harmful to people,” Hasselman said. “Time’s up.”

They are asking the court to stop the federal government from issuing new flood insurance in the most sensitive areas, which would effectively stop development in those areas because private flood insurance is nearly nonexistent and it is very difficult to build without insurance, Hasselman said.

An attorney representing a coalition of property owners, builders, real estate professionals and industry groups says the National Wildlife Federation’s approach on this issue is all wrong.

Molly Lawrence of Seattle law firm Gordon Derr said the motion ignores the many regulations already in place at the local level to protect endangered species.

“From my perspective, the real story is that, to date, NWF has not challenged one local jurisdiction’s development regulations as violating the Endangered Species Act,” Lawrence said. “They are trying to achieve through this lawsuit what they have been flatly unable to accomplish through local and state land use regulation development processes.”

She said the Property Owners for Sensible Regulations will decide soon how they might want to participate in the lawsuit.

If the motion is granted, the federal government could be prevented from issuing insurance for new development in flood prone areas until FEMA implements revises its plans to consider the Endangered Species Act or at least until the most recent legal issue is resolved.

The injunction would affect about 75 communities and unincorporated counties around the region, including Seattle, although most of the flood plains in the region are outside the state’s largest city.

“We think this is a good opportunity to take a time out and re-evaluate whether the historic approach to flood plain management makes sense moving into the future,” Hasselman said, noting that because of climate change, scientists expect flooding to continue to get worse.

A call to FEMA requesting a comment on the motion was not immediately returned Wednesday.

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