- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

The Washington area is about to be introduced to the Endangered Species Act, and people may find that it is much easier to love that law from afar. Today, the National Wilderness Institute (NWI) a conservation organization is scheduled to file a lawsuit seeking enforcement of the Endangered Species Act as it relates to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction project and the operation of the Washington Aqueduct.

Several endangered species live in the Potomac area and are harmed by these projects. The bald eagle is the best known local endangered species, and the government admits that bridge construction will cause a nearby pair of eagles to abandon their nest and chicks, resulting in the "take" of four eagles. Other local species such as the shortnose sturgeon and the dwarf wedge mussel are less well-known and so rare that if the government refuses to curtail its harmful activities, these species face imminent extinction in the Potomac.

The government itself has completed several studies and reports evaluating the potential impacts to wildlife during the demolition and construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. However, the reports are less a search for the truth than an attempt to circumvent the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

For example, while the Department of Transportation's Biological Assessment states that the existence of shortnose sturgeon has not been verified in the upper Potomac River and that the species is unlikely to be near the bridge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) recently released a report stating that shortnose sturgeon "may be widely distributed in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay." According to the FWS, "Within the Potomac River and its tributaries, there are habitats that are suitable for shortnose sturgeons and possibly do support a resident population."

Additionally, federal agencies did not bother to deal with the impact of the midnight dumping of chemically laden effluent from the Washington Aqueduct that is lethal to anadromous fish (including endangered sturgeon) in the critical Little Falls spawning grounds. Government documents reveal that other options that would safely dispose of the contaminated sediment were dismissed from the outset and that the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed the Army Corps of Engineers' mismanagement of the facility to continue.

Why this indifference to violations in the very shadow of the federal agencies charged with preventing them? Rural and Western communities have long noticed that laws such as the Endangered Species Act have been zealously enforced against them, often with devastating effects on their communities, while the act never seems to be applied in the urban East.

A recent study by the House Resources Committee found the imbalance to be real and far greater than anyone suspected. Several hundred species had been listed in Western and Great Plains states, but only 39 were listed in the Northeast. Critical habitat had been designated for 96 species in the West but only for nine species in the East. Nor is there any prospect for evenhanded enforcement in the future. Hundreds of species had been proposed or were candidates for listing in the West while only five additional species were in the listing pipeline in the Northeast. A major reason for this absurd disparity is revealed by the staffing decisions made by the Fish and Wildlife Service. There are several hundred Endangered Species Act enforcement officials stationed in the West. The Northeast, by contrast, had only 31 such employees.

It is obvious that until now, enforcement of the endangered species law has been limited to one part of the country. But that is about to change. NWI's lawsuit shows the Wilson Bridge Project and the Washington Aqueduct are receiving special treatment in order to bypass the environmental standards required under the ESA, standards that federal officials routinely impose on similar projects "outside the Beltway." This lawsuit is about the consistent application of the law.

In this case, the federal government is currently taking actions that directly threaten the existence of endangered species such as the shortnose sturgeon, dwarf wedge mussel and the bald eagle, actions that might stop any such project were it in the West.

During the recent confirmation hearings nominees were asked if they would enforce the law even when they were philosophically opposed to it. Since "yes" is the only answer an official can give, some wondered why the question was given such prominence. The answer is that although officials cannot choose to ignore any of the laws entrusted to them, they do have to make decisions about how to allocate their agency's limited resources. Budget, staffing levels and time are limited, and officials must set priorities. The real question is whether they will enforce the laws evenhandedly, fairly and without favoritism. That has clearly not been the case with the Endangered Species Act.

I am not interested in stopping the bridge project or disrupting the water supply system for Washington. But I cannot support continued selective enforcement of laws under which federal regulatory agencies lay siege to poor rural communities while exempting themselves from the inconvenience of complying.

Rep. George Radanovich is a Republican from California.

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