Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 84° Partly Cloudy
News >  Pacific NW

Environmental group sues over Highway 95 transportation project

March 30, 2022 Updated Wed., March 30, 2022 at 4:22 p.m.

By Angela Palermo Moscow-Pullman Daily News

A local conservation group is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying the agency incorrectly granted a Clean Water Act permit to the Idaho Transportation Department for its project realigning U.S. Highway 95 from Thorn Creek Road to Moscow.

Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition filed the lawsuit March 22 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. The case is the fourth time the nonprofit group has challenged plans to reroute the last two-lane sections between Moscow and Lewiston and expand it to four lanes.

The coalition previously submitted a legal complaint against the Federal Highway Administration and the Idaho Transportation Department in April 2017 regarding the project’s Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. They say the chosen route, located furthest to the east, is the most environmentally damaging of the three routes which were considered. According to the coalition, the path threatens big game habitat and destroys several wetlands.

Al Poplawsky, board member and treasurer at the coalition, said the group favors a central route that utilizes part of the current roadbed.

“We’re not against rerouting the highway,” Poplawsky said. “We understand it’s a safety problem and it needs to be addressed, but we don’t see a need to pick the alternative that is the most environmentally damaging. They had three alternatives and they keep pushing the one that’s the most environmentally damaging.”

The latest lawsuit claims the proposed construction involves discharging fill material into Paradise Ridge wetlands, which is prohibited by the Clean Water Act without a permit.

Court documents say the Idaho Transportation Department falsely assessed the affected wetlands as less than half an acre in its permit application, after describing it earlier as larger than half an acre in the Environmental Impact Statement. The permit granted by the Army Corps of Engineers requires affected wetlands to be half an acre or less in size.

The nine-page complaint issued by the coalition last week names Doral Hoff, district engineer for District 2 of the Idaho Transportation Department in north central Idaho, and the Army Corps of Engineers as defendants.

Curtis Arnzen, resident engineer for District 2 of the Idaho Transportation Department, said the state agency was not aware of the new lawsuit.

“We’re moving forward with construction,” Arnzen said. “In our eyes, we have a valid 404 permit that the Army Corps of Engineers issued for the project and we have a contract with our contractor that allows us to begin work. That’s how we view it.”

The multimillion-dollar project has been under contract with M.A. DeAtley Construction since late December. Construction for the new route began last week, according to Arnzen. He says crews are currently removing some trees in addition to other preliminary work. Earth moving will start in a few months when the construction is less likely to be impacted by rain and wet soils on the Palouse.

The planned four-lane highway is expected to open to traffic in October 2024.

Arnzen said the new route is the safest and fastest alternative proposed. The realignment will feature flatter grades, fewer approaches and less severe curves.

“It’s a big safety project,” he said. “The existing highway routinely has three high-accident locations in it that are the highest in this area. There’s a lot of safety concerns on the existing alignment.”

While the chosen route may be the safest and fastest, the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition says the two other proposed routes still meet the highway project’s safety and transportation goals and impose fewer environmental impacts, causing significantly less harm to the Palouse Prairie and other wetlands on Paradise Ridge.

Cass Davis, board president for the coalition, says the Army Corps of Engineers should never have issued a permit for the route because the impacted wetlands are greater than half an acre. The corps granted a Nationwide Permit No. 14, which is used for linear transportation projects up to half an acre. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires a permit before discharging dredged or fill material into waters in the U.S.

Davis says that when projects impact an area greater than half an acre, the permitting process is different and allows the public to challenge it.

“All of the alternatives were within the safety specs,” he said. “They decided this one was slightly safer than the rest in order to take that route which, to us, is bogus. You have to go with the least environmentally damaging route.”

The coalition’s lawsuit does not seek any damages, only an injunction against the project.

The Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition includes the Palouse Broadband of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Wild Idaho Rising Tide, the Palouse Environmental Sustainability Coalition and the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.