Lawsuit accuses FEMA of ignoring species threats
By Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is being sued again over accusations that it violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing flood insurance without determining whether development would impact imperiled plants and animals.
WildEarth Guardians said Wednesday it filed a lawsuit against FEMA in federal court in New Mexico that claims the agency's National Flood Insurance Program encourages development in flood plains without determining whether threatened or endangered species would be harmed.
FEMA officials said Wednesday they would not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit follows a similar complaint filed by the group in early September in Arizona. Environmental groups also have challenged FEMA over the impacts of the program on species in Washington, Oregon and Florida.
"I think FEMA really doesn't have any understanding, particularly here in the West, that flood plain development is a huge environmental problem that's been overlooked and under scrutinized for far, far too long," said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.
Horning said it's been more than three decades since the environmental impacts of the flood insurance program have been assessed on a national level, and the goal of the lawsuits is to force the agency to consider the impacts on species and habitat across the nation.
The lawsuits filed in New Mexico and Arizona seek injunctions that would require FEMA to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of the flood insurance program.
WildEarth Guardians also wants to prevent the agency from issuing insurance policies for new construction in flood-prone areas if the activity would harm threatened or endangered species.
More than 16,700 flood insurance policies, totaling about $2.7 billion in coverage, have been issued in New Mexico. The lawsuit said most cover structures in flood plains along the Rio Grande, San Juan and Pecos rivers, which are all home to species protected by federal law.
WildEarth Guardians points to state and federal agencies that say New Mexico's water ways are vital to the survival of imperiled species, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
In all, more than half of vertebrates in New Mexico and Arizona are entirely dependent on riparian areas, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"You couldn't find a more precious piece of real estate in terms of its environmental value," Horning said of flood plains in the arid West.
In administering the flood insurance program, FEMA identifies and maps flood-prone areas, adopts requirements for development in those areas and provides for flood insurance or federal disaster assistance. Lenders generally require property owners and developers to obtain flood insurance in areas FEMA determines are at risk.
Environmentalists contend that if FEMA does a better job of scrutinizing the impacts of development in flood plains, there would be less risk to homeowners as well as species and their habitat.
"I think the federal government has been a pushover and has provided a rubber stamp that has allowed development to occur in places that it really shouldn't have," Horning said.
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