By Matt Hawk
Published: Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 18, 2007 at 11:54 p.m.
HOLT | An environmental law organization has joined Tuscaloosa environmental groups in calling for a new study of the environmental impact of the proposed Eastern Bypass on Hurricane Creek.
A bypass connecting Interstate 20/59 to U.S. Highway 82 is to pass through the M-bend of Hurricane Creek, home to several rare species of plants and animals. Environmental groups say a 1999 study did not address all of the issues required by law.
Virginia-based Southern Environmental Law Center, in a recent letter to the Alabama Department of Transportation, cited several instances in the project’s 1999 environmental impact survey in which the department did not follow federal guidelines.
“There are whole categories of environmental impacts that have been left out entirely," said Gilbert Rogers, lawyer with the center. “ALDOT simply didn’t do [them]."
Absent from the 1999 survey are studies of the indirect and cumulative impacts of the bypass on the creek and its tributaries. Such impacts include the effect of increased pollution, silt deposits and erosion from secondary development on the creek’s environmental health.
Those omissions have the center and environmental groups like Friends of Hurricane Creek and the Sierra Club worried.
The $227 million bypass that will connect Interstate 20/59 to U.S. Highway 82 is slated to pass through the M-bend -- a snaking portion of Hurricane Creek that is home to several rare species of plant and animal life.
“This area is a living, breathing laboratory within a bicycle ride of the University of Alabama," said John Wathen, creek keeper for Hurricane Creek.
Sites of historic and archeological interest can also be found along the creek, including several century-old belly mines, so called because the entrances were cut so low miners had to crawl on their stomachs to enter, he said.
The 21 mines are on a ridge that will be destroyed during construction of the bypass and were not recorded in the 1999 survey.
For years, Wathen has led the charge for a supplemental environmental impact survey that takes into account changing conditions and new archeological and biological findings along the creek.
The Southern Environmental Law Center became involved at Wathen’s request, sending copies of its findings to ALDOT Director Joe McInnes and division engineer L. Dee Rowe.
Rowe could not be reached for comment Monday. Tony Harris, spokesman for ALDOT, declined to comment, saying he had not seen the letter.
Wathen said the department has repeatedly said a new study would be too costly. He maintains ALDOT does not have a choice.
“These are federal mandates to the [National Environmental Policy Act]," Wathen said. “These are laws; they’re not requests."
Wathen said Friends of Hurricane Creek and the Sierra Club were willing to take legal action to ensure those laws are enforced.
“We intend to follow up on [the letter] in a reasonable amount of time," he said. “If they don’t respond, then, yes, there will be a federal lawsuit."
Rogers declined to say whether his organization would participate in such a lawsuit, though he did say the law center had filed similar lawsuits in the past.
“We’re certainly committed to helping the Hurricane creek keeper and making sure ALDOT does what they’re supposed to do," he said.
Reach Matt Hawk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0213.