Associated Press Groups seek injunction on non-emergency permits

BILLINGS - In federal court arguments, environmental groups accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of violating federal law by permitting bank stabilization projects on the Yellowstone River without first studying their cumulative effects.

But the federal attorney defending the corps said the 15 permits cited by the groups involved small, emergency projects with negligible effects and did not require a major environmental review. She accused the environmental groups of "cherry-picking" the few cases that best supported their claim.

The arguments were made Monday before Chief U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom. The judge did not indicate when he would rule.

Six environmental groups sued the corps last year, alleging that it is harming the Yellowstone River by issuing permits for bank stabilization projects without studying potential effects. The groups are seeking an injunction on non-emergency permits.

The permits being challenged were issued for projects mostly in the Livingston and Billings areas after record flooding in 1996 and 1997.

Between 1975 and 1995, the corps issued 38 permits for projects along the river in Park County, the plaintiffs said. Between 1995 and 1998, the corps issued 178 permits in Park, Sweet Grass, Stillwater and Yellowstone counties, the plaintiffs said.

Jim Angell of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, representing the groups, said the "explosion" of permits prompted concern that the bank stabilization projects could have a significant effect. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency notified the corps about their concerns in letters.

Internal documents from the corps indicated that the agency believed the projects may have a significant environmental effect, he said. But none of the environmental assessments by the corps looked at the cumulative effects as required by law, Angell said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Francis said almost all of the 15 permits were issued to protect either houses, businesses, irrigation ditches or underground tanks after the flooding and each permit is distinct.

Characterizing the number of permits issued as an "explosion" was wrong, because they were issued mostly in urban areas because of flooding, Francis said. Four permits were for replacement of existing projects.

The corps' conclusions that projects would have no significant impact were rational, reasonable and supported by the regulations, Francis said. But if the court does not believe the record supports the corps' findings, Francis asked the judge to give the agency an opportunity to review the cases.

Plaintiffs include Montana Council of Trout Unlimited, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, Park County Environmental Council, Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society and Montana River Action.

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