PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - Conservation groups sued the federal government on Thursday for implementing a national flood insurance program that destroys Oregon habitats and jeopardizes 17 species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Led by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the federal complaint centers on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's continued operation of the National Flood Insurance Program in Oregon - a program that has, so far, allowed five million U.S. property owners to buy affordable flood insurance from the government.
The insurance program is set to expire on Sept. 30 if lawmakers in Washington, D.C., don't approve its extension for the upcoming year.
But despite the program's financial setbacks, conservationists claim its continued operations in Oregon have not lived up to its other mission of encouraging "sensible land use that minimizes the exposure of built structures to flood damage."
In reality, the groups claim, the program has "encouraged floodplain development in high-hazard areas by providing insurance policies that obscure risk to property owners and provide taxpayer-subsidized, discounted coverage."
The groups also say the program destroys ecosystems while significantly harming some of the state's most iconic species.
According to the complaint, FEMA's program encourages floodplain development that affects the quantity and quality of fish habitat used for migration, spawning and rearing, thus causing further mortality and risking species extinction.
The accusation is backed by how FEMA failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service until 2009 following a lawsuit. This prompted the marine agency to release a biological opinion in 2016, which determined the insurance program's Oregon operations are jeopardizing 15 salmonid species, the distinct population segment of the Pacific eulachon and salmon-dependent Southern Resident orcas.
"Development in floodplains can disconnect this important area from river channels and destroy natural riparian and wetland vegetation," the biological opinion states. "Altering the natural processes that allow habitat to form and recover from disturbances, such as floods, can affect multiple stages of the salmon life-cycle and impede their survival and long-term recovery."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife has requested that FEMA update its "chronically outdated flood maps, develop new criteria to limit floodplain development," the plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release, and mitigate harm during development while improving reporting and enforcement.
But those requests, the center said, have been ignored for more than seven years.
According to the environmental protection groups, FEMA has ignored the biological opinion and refused to comply with six elements that would bring it into compliance or take alternative protective actions to avoid harming species and adversely modifying critical habitat.
"Rather than complying with the law, FEMA has chosen to stall and delay urgently needed reforms of its National Flood Insurance Program," said Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for plaintiff Willamette River, in a statement.
Sallinger added that, while FEMA has known that reforms are necessary since 2016, it has continued to miss important deadlines and is "still years away from compliance."
"Meanwhile, floodplain productivity continues to decline, habitat continues to degrade and ESA-listed species face an ongoing situation that jeopardizes their very existence," the groups wrote in the complaint, concluding that the government has violated the biological opinion's incidental take statement and Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.
"It's absurd and illegal that FEMA chooses to ignore commonsense flood insurance reforms designed to protect imperiled marine mammals and fish," said Center attorney Chelsea Stewart-Fusek in a statement.
"Many of these animals are on the brink of extinction, yet FEMA continues to conduct business as usual at the expense of our vitally important floodplain ecosystems and the species who depend on them. We shouldn't have to take the agency to court to protect endangered species, but that's become the only option."
In another statement, Northwest Environmental attorney Mary Stites explained that, amid the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, it's now more important than ever to protect floodplains - ecosystems she describes as "biodiversity hotspots with highly complex, functional habitat systems."
"Once developed, we lose the ecosystem benefits of habitat function, water-quality protection and flood and drought mitigation. These losses exacerbate the environmental and socio-economic impacts of environmental degradation and flooding and expose frontline communities to these disasters," Stites said. "We have a plan that will result in effective floodplain management that protects people and species, it is time that FEMA acts on it."
Representatives of FEMA did not immediately respond to requests for comment or an interview.
Source: Courthouse News Service