New Lawsuit Seeks Restraining Order to Stop Unlawful Dredging Project

LOS ANGELES (August 25, 2006) -- The Deltakeeper Chapter of Baykeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed suit in federal court late yesterday charging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it issued a permit allowing the Port of Stockton to dredge in the San Joaquin River, without accounting for the potential harm to the river and the people living in surrounding communities.

The plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the dredging, which is already underway. The dredging is the first step of a large-scale expansion plan to triple the port's size. The Army Corps failed to complete the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project, required by NEPA for all projects that might significantly affect the environment.

"This dredging is going to drag up 130,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and waste that will be dumped on nearby islands where it could have significant health and environmental consequences," said Melissa Lin Perrella, senior project attorney with NRDC. "And the overall expansion project is going to bring air pollution from thousands of trucks and hundreds of ships to some of the poorest communities in Stockton."

In July, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) expressed concern about the toxicity of the dredge spoils, which will be placed on unlined areas of land, threatening the groundwater. The port's own environmental review has shown that the dredging will have considerable impact on the surrounding environment. And the Army Corps itself, in previous consultation with the NMFS, stated that dredging "may adversely affect" federally listed threatened and endangered species.

Despite this, the Army Corps expedited the dredging permit without an EIS. The Corps issued the dredging permit without allowing any opportunity for review by the public, NMFS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or even its own attorney.

"The Corps violated its duty to protect this important waterway from the threats of dredging, and they did it by silencing our community's concerns and at the expense of our fish and our dying river," said Carrie McNeil, chapter director of Deltakeeper. "The nearby Deep Water Ship Channel is already federally listed as an impaired waterway due to its low oxygen levels and the presence of pesticides, mercury and other pathogens. Dredging can lead to even lower levels of oxygen, endangering native fish like the threatened salmon and the green sturgeon."

For three years, the Corps, as well as other federal and state regulatory agencies, had been repeatedly characterizing the dredging activities as an essential component of the port's massive development project. More recently, however, in the weeks just prior to the issuance of the dredging permit, both the Port of Stockton and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers disavowed this position. In the end, the Corps of Engineers bypassed the need for an EIS by considering the dredging an independent event without significant environmental consequences, and not as part of the overall port expansion project.

"This shows troubling indications of a change of rules at the end of the game, just before the final buzzer," said Robert Perlmutter, a partner with the San Francisco law firm of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger and lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The Port of Stockton is located 75 miles inland from San Francisco. Its expansion will result in 150 more large diesel ships annually polluting the 75-mile shipping route, and over 50,000 more vehicles and trucks passing through a town already plagued with some of the worst air quality in the nation.

"A project as large as this one, with the potential to enormously affect the quality of life of millions of people, cannot be put in motion by a bureaucratic sleight of hand," said Ann Chargin, from the Stockton-based Friends of Riviera Cliffs association. "It must have the attentive, engaged participation of all concerned parties and involve the communities that will have to live with the results."