The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the Virginia Department of Transportation consider alternatives to the proposed Western Bypass of U.S. 29 to make sure the project is in compliance with federal law.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires that VDOT conduct an environmental assessment of the bypass so the Federal Highway Administration can determine whether its most recent approval in 2003 is still valid or whether further review is necessary.
“Alternatives analysis is the heart of NEPA,” reads an addendum to a letter sent by EPA officials to VDOT in October in response to a draft version of the environmental assessment. “Given the time that has passed since the original study, an alternative that is sensitive to the environmental and social concerns [should] be considered in addition to the preferred bypass.”
VDOT officials are currently revising a 62-page environmental assessment released in late August to consider comments from the public, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. VDOT is expected to send the final environmental assessment to the FHWA in December.
Engineers with the team of Skanska-USA and Branch Highways cannot begin work on a final design or purchasing additional land until the NEPA process is completed. That work can begin if the FHWA issues a “finding of no significant impact.”
However, the FHWA could ask for further research in the form of a supplemental environmental impact statement.
In their letter, EPA officials argue for the latter approach because many conditions have changed since 2003.
“It might be appropriate for the lead agencies to provide an updated or new [supplemental environmental impact statement] to reflect the environmental conditions since the last NEPA document [and] provide an up-to-date alternatives analysis reflecting current status of roadways and land use in the area,” reads an Oct. 9 letter signed by Jeffrey D. Lapp, associate director of EPA’s office of environmental programs.
As part of the environmental assessment, VDOT opted not to conduct an analysis of alternatives that serve the same purpose as the bypass. The EPA said the department should reconsider.
“The alternatives analysis does not account for the current status of roadways nor consider new alternatives since the SEIS in 2003,” reads an attachment to the letter. “These alternatives and alignments were based on traffic patterns and flow from the 1990s.
An attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a Charlottesville-based group opposed to the bypass, welcomed the EPA’s guidance.
“It speaks volumes that the federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment has again weighed in on this project to stress the age of the previous studies and to highlight the importance of considering new and less damaging solutions,” said Trip Pollard, leader of the SELC’s land and community program.
A supporter of the road said he is not surprised at the EPA’s response.
“The EPA letter is as surprising as a zebra with stripes [because] the organization has not endorsed any bypass in 20 years,” said Neil Williamson, of the Free Enterprise Forum.
The EPA also raises concerns that the bypass will pass through the watersheds for Moores Creek, Meadow Creek and Ivy Creek, as well as the Rivanna River. All four were designated as impaired after the FHWA gave its approval and are now on pollution diets to reduce the amount of sediment that enters them.
“The EA … makes no mention of how the proposed project will potentially affect the already impaired watersheds with the increased surface disturbance, filling of 2.8 acres of wetlands, increased impermeable surfaces, impacts from the 24 stream crossings, runoff and potential pollutants from the roadway once it is in use,” the EPA’s response continues.
The letter points out that Skanska-Branch may need to obtain a permit from the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in order to demonstrate compliance with the Clean Water Act. Lapp suggested an analysis of bypass alternatives would help secure that approval.
“As the Corps can only permit the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative, it must be demonstrated that the preferred alternative is the LEPDA,” Lapp wrote.
The letter also warns there could be additional scrutiny from the federal government even if the FHWA allows the project to move forward early next year.
“If controversy and environmental or community impacts appear significant pertaining to new information or circumstances, including new regulations, a higher level of study may be required,” Lapp wrote.
The EPA also calls upon VDOT to consider “secondary and cumulative” impacts that the bypass may have on the community.
“It is … possible that if the bypass is constructed, the development of Greene County will in fact speed up as the potential commuting advantage between the area and Charlottesville could attract additional developers and residents that would not have had interest in the area prior to the bypass,” Lapp wrote.
A spokeswoman for the EPA said the agency’s comments should be seen as advisory and that the FHWA will make the final decision.
“Federal Highways came to EPA for its environmental expertise,” said Donna Heron. “And EPA shared its environmental expertise on issues it thinks should be addressed.”