PORTLAND, Ore.— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration for failing to ensure that protected species are not jeopardized by the America’s Marine Highway Program. The program seeks to expand shipping on major rivers and coastal areas in Washington, Oregon, Virginia and other states where listed species are at risk.
“By funding the expansion of barge traffic in their habitat, the Maritime Administration is putting highly endangered species like Atlantic sturgeon and Chinook salmon at risk,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center. “Rather than keep their heads in the sand, federal officials need to ensure that any effort to increase vessel traffic won’t jeopardize imperiled wildlife.”
The America’s Marine Highway Program aims to expand the use of the country’s navigable waters for shipping by promoting and funding the expansion of vessel traffic on marine highways, which include major rivers such as the James, Columbia and Hudson as well as the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The program provides grants to purchase barges — known to harm protected species through collisions, spills of fuel or chemicals — and expand transport of fossil fuels, thereby contributing to the climate crisis.
“Vessel traffic is decimating vulnerable wildlife in the James River and across the country,” said Margolis. “Federal officials can’t keep sacrificing our waters and wildlife by ignoring the impacts of a program that has the potential to cause widespread harm.”
Today’s lawsuit challenges the Maritime Administration’s failure to conduct required Endangered Species Act consultation with wildlife agencies on its efforts to expand vessel traffic in the James River in Virginia, as well as its failure to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the Marine Highway Program through programmatic consultation. The program has provided millions of dollars to expand barge traffic in the James River, where vessel collisions are threatening the recovery of Atlantic sturgeon, a highly endangered species.
The Maritime Administration has paid out for dozens of such projects across the country and recently announced that nearly $11 million has been made available for grants in 2021. Consultation with wildlife agencies is crucial for limiting the harm done to endangered species by the projects the agency funds.