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Citizens, Conservation Groups Threaten Federal Lawsuit Over Controversial Pipeline Project in Puerto Rico

October 26, 2011

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT -- A coalition of community and conservation groups alerted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this morning that it intends to sue the Corps within 60 days over the agency's handling of a proposed natural gas pipeline line through ecologically sensitive areas in Puerto Rico.

Image of tree frogOn behalf of these groups, Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC) filed a notice of intent to sue based on numerous violations of the Endangered Species Act. The notice of intent was sent to the Corps' office in Jacksonville, Fla. Read the notice of intent.

In public comments, the groups also have raised concerns about the Corps' compliance with several other federal laws that do not require a 60-day advance notice before filing a lawsuit. The ENRLC is serving as co-counsel for the coalition along with the University of Puerto Rico Environmental Law Clinic, Puerto Rico Legal Services and other attorneys.

The Corps has 60 days to respond to the notice of intent to sue; a lawsuit can be filed after that period. The Corps is expected to issue a draft environmental assessment of the Vía Verde project before the end of the year. The coalition has urged the Corps to hold public hearings and conduct a more thorough environmental impact study before issuing the permit that would allow construction to begin.

"Our clients' objective is to ensure that the Corps fully complies with federal laws designed to safeguard endangered species and sensitive ecosystems as well as to protect the citizens of Puerto Rico from safety risks and other adverse impacts of the proposed pipeline," said VLS Professor Pat Parenteau, senior counsel for the ENRLC.Image of manatee

The 92-mile pipeline, which has provoked widespread opposition over environmental and safety concerns, would traverse the island of Puerto Rico. It would run through heavily populated areas as well as mountains, rainforests, natural reserves, karst regions, coastal areas and other sensitive areas inhabited by more than 40 species of endangered wildlife and plants - including manatees, hawks and snakes -- while providing no real cost savings to the Puerto Rican people.

"With its limestone topography and recognizable haystack formations, the forested mountains and caves of the karst region are cherished by Puerto Ricans and they contain some of the most biologically diverse habitat in the world," said José Colón of Citizens of the Karst.

In August 2010, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority submitted an application to the Corps for a wetlands dredge-and-fill permit for the Vía Verde pipeline project. Such permit applications require the Corps to comply with the Endangered Species Act and a host of other federal laws. Supporters of the project say it would reduce the island's high electricity costs, but opponents say the true costs have not been fully disclosed and that the project is unlikely to improve consumer rates and may even worsen them.

Image of hawksbill turtleThe notice of intent to sue accuses the Corps of failing to adequately consider the project's potential impacts on endangered species before issuing a wetlands dredge-and-fill permit under the Clean Water Act. The notice also calls into question whether the Corps adequately consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps' failure to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Services over potential impacts on coastal species, such as endangered corals and sea turtles. These interagency consultations are critical in light of the recent proposed listing of the coquí llanero as endangered. "This tiny tree frog depends on wetland vegetation that only occurs within a 400-acre territory that could be damaged or destroyed by the construction of the pipeline," said amphibian expert Neftalí Ríos.

"The citizens of Puerto Rico are in favor of newer, cleaner and cheaper energy alternatives that can be achieved without this unnecessarily damaging and unjustified project," said Professor Pedro Saadé Llorens, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico. "They believe their energy and environmental needs can be met by providing natural gas to southern coast energy plants and by pursuing efficiency and renewable energy alternatives instead of cutting a six-foot deep trench 92 miles through some of the most pristine ecological habitat in the world. In short, our clients are promoting the best interests of their communities based on sound environmental and economic information."Image of sharp-shinned hawk

"The pipeline will cause permanent and unnecessary damage to Puerto Rico's unique and priceless natural heritage," said Jaclyn Lopez, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The coalition includes Ciudadanos del Karso (Citizens of Karst), Federación Espeleológica de Puerto Rico (Speleological Federation of Puerto Rico), Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña, Inc. (Puerto Rico Ornithological Society), Vegabajeños Impulsando un Desarrollo Ambiental Sustentable (Vegabajeños Supporting Sustainable Environmental Development), Comite Utuadeño Contra el Gasoducto (Utuadeño Committee Against the Pipeline), the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and several individual citizens.

Image of boaAvailable to talk to the media are:

• VLS Professor Pat Parenteau: 802.831.1305, pparenteau@vermontlaw.edu
• VLS Associate Professor Teresa Clemmer, acting director of the ENRLC: 802.831.1136, tclemmer@vermontlaw.edu
• UPR Professor Pedro Saadé Llorens: 787.999.9573, 787.766.3063, 787.397.9993, saadellorensp@microjuris.com
• Attorney Hadassa Santini Colberg, Puerto Rico Legal Services: 787.728.8686 ext. 1256, 787.969.2922, hsantini@servicioslegales.org
• Attorney Jaclyn Lopez, CBD: 415.436.9682 ext. 305, jlopez@biologicaldiversity.org

CONTACT: John Cramer, Associate Director of Media Relations
Office: 802.831.1106, cell: 540.798.7099, home: 802.649.2235,mailto:jcramer@vermontlaw.edu

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