Clean Air Act Cited In Expected Lawsuit

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

Two environmental groups say they will sue to stop construction of the intercounty connector, arguing that building the highway would violate sections of the federal Clean Air Act.

Environmental Defense and the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club said the Washington region already fails to meet certain clean-air standards and that building the six-lane, 18-mile highway would increase pollution. The $2.4 billion intercounty connector would link Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George's County.

"There are elementary schools and nursing centers close to the ICC, and people who live and work within several hundred yards of this new highway will suffer health problems as a result of breathing fine particles from the trucks and buses and cars," said Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense, which has filed an "intent to sue" notice with the federal government, Maryland and the regional Transportation Planning Board.

Because the Washington region does not comply with federal limits on fine particles, the groups say, federal officials cannot legally approve or fund any project that would increase the amount of particulates. The highway was given final approval by federal officials in June and some minor construction projects have begun.

"It's up to the federal agencies to meet their responsibilities under the Clean Air Act and take a good hard look at this and whether the approval of this road was a legal action," Replogle said.

A 60-day notice of intent to sue is required when taking legal action against federal agencies for violating the Clean Air Act, said Hope Babcock, director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups.

"We want them to go back and do an analysis that is not defective," she said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday that the suit neither surprised nor worried him.

"Every highway project has to withstand the test of a lawsuit," Flanagan said. "In this particular case, the enemies of the ICC have not given up."

Flanagan said all the proper studies have been done and all applicable regulations have been complied with. He added that Maryland's study on the small particulate impact of the highway has been held up by federal officials as an example of how to conduct an environmental review.

"They have been planning a lawsuit since day one," Flanagan said of the environmental groups. "And by the same token, we have had legal advisers carefully screen every step we made so we can defend the lawsuit."

Last April, highway opponents filed 129 pages of objections to the highway's environmental impact report, saying planners failed to investigate cheaper, cleaner alternatives to the region's traffic woes.

Supporters say the highway is necessary to link the thriving business community that runs along I-270 to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Port of Baltimore, both accessible by I-95. They also say it will take drivers off local roads and give them a more direct route across Maryland's crowded northern suburbs.

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