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Sierra Club suit against proposed Stillwater bridge may continue, judge says

An erroneous posting in a federal publication, and not an oversight by the Sierra Club, led the environmental organization to miss a statutory deadline for filing a lawsuit aimed to halt the St. Croix River Bridge project.

Such was the message U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis sent to U.S. attorneys last Wednesday when he denied their motion to dismiss the case against the project filed last summer by the environmental organization's Northstar Chapter.

A notice in the Dec. 5, 2006, Federal Register, a publication that documents federal rules changes, incorrectly printed the deadline for filing a challenge to the bridge project as "June 6, 2007."

This error, Sierra Club representatives argued in court this spring, to file its lawsuit on June 5, 2007, one day before the published deadline, but one day after a legally required 180-day challenge period ended.

State and federal transportation departments are proposing a four-lane, $582 million project building a bridge over the St. Croix River between Oak Park Heights (Minn.,) and Houlton, and requiring that the Stillwater Lift Bridge be rehabilitated as a bicycle and pedestrian crossing.

Sierra Club representatives have maintained that the project violates the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act that protects the river and that it is not substantially different from a previous project a federal court rejected in 1998.

Davis' ruling did not address the merits of environmental organization's lawsuit, but whether it should be allowed to continue.

The ruling

The Federal Highway Administration, "through its publication of a misleading Federal Register notice, lulled Sierra Club into inaction," Davis wrote in his ruling.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service are defendants in the environmental organization's lawsuit, which aims to halt progress on the proposed bridge project at the federal level. State transportation agencies were not party to the suit.

Further, although Sierra Club missed the statutory deadline, it filed a day before the published deadline, indicating that the organization acted in good faith, Davis said.

In several sections, he clarified the federal government was responsible for the publishing error and that the environmental organization could legitimately continue its suit.

"Sierra Club filed its Complaint before the deadline promulgated by the FHWA and only missed the actual statutory deadline by one day," Davis wrote. "The Court notes that the FHWA, itself, clearly had difficulty calculating the correct date and published and failed to correct that incorrect date.

"The FHWA itself caused the delay by noticing the incorrect date for filing; Sierra Club diligently filed its Complaint before the deadline promulgated by the FHWA, and the one-day delay can hardly be said to prejudice the FHWA, particularly when the filing came before the deadline the FHWA announced."

'Ripe' for challenge

Davis ruled further against the government's argument that the project is not legally "ripe" for challenge.

On the contrary, he said the National Park Service's 2005 review of potential environmental impacts, although labeled a "draft," represented the end of the agency's decision-making process.

"The 'draft' Section 7 Evaluation represents the NPS's final word on whether the Proposed Bridge violates" the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act that protects the St. Croix River, Davis wrote.

Further, Davis said the Federal Highway Administration relied on the environmental review when issuing its Record of Decision on the project, a ruling that permits federal and state transportation agencies to proceed with a project.

"For the [Wild & Scenic Rivers Act] to have any teeth, the NPS's evaluation must precede the [Record of Decision]. Now that the contingencies identified in the 2005 Section 7 Evaluation have come to pass, the document is final," Davis wrote.