SEATTLE (AP) — The National Wildlife Federation plans to sue the federal government, saying it has failed to ensure that the national flood insurance program hasn't harmed endangered salmon — or the orca whales that feed on the fish — in Puget Sound.
Thursday marked the deadline when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was to ensure that 122 communities in Puget Sound had met new building requirements that don't jeopardize fish habitat. To remain eligible for federal flood insurance coverage, communities from Bellingham to Olympia must show FEMA that development they allow in certain areas won't harm salmon.
"We fully believe that flood risk reduction and fisheries habitat protection are a good fit, and are certainly not mutually exclusive," FEMA regional administrator Ken Murphy said in a statement Wednesday. "We're right on track."
FEMA has been working closely with state, federal and local officials to offer communities different ways to meet new building requirements, Murphy said.
Environmentalists, however, say that FEMA has missed several deadlines to get cities and counties to comply. On Thursday, attorneys for the public-interest law firm Earthjustice filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue FEMA on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation.
The conservation group alleges that FEMA continues to violate the federal Endangered Species Act by not adequately reforming the program. It says the agency's level of compliance with the reforms "remains deeply problematic."
FEMA has allowed communities to participate in the flood program without complying with the improved standards, National Wildlife Federation senior policy specialist Dan Siemann said.
FEMA is the major underwriter of flood policies in the U.S. There are about 41,000 policies in force in Puget Sound.
Environmentalists say FEMA's program allows building to occur in areas where it otherwise would not, since most private insurers won't safeguard homes in such flood-prone areas. They say the agency sets minimum building standards, but those don't consider impacts of development on wildlife and their habitat.
Conservation groups across the country have challenged FEMA's flood program for harming endangered sea turtles in Florida, pallid sturgeon in Missouri, jaguars in Arizona, salmon in Oregon and the Southwestern willow flycatcher in New Mexico.
In 2008, fisheries experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told FEMA that by underwriting flood insurance policies in Puget Sound, it encourages construction in floodplains in ways that likely harm protected fish, such as Puget Sound Chinook salmon. NOAA called for reforms to the program, such as providing federal insurance only to building activities that don't harm habitat for fish.
In the past 100 years, 73 percent of Puget Sound's wetlands have been lost, according to NOAA. Construction reduces the floodplain's ability to absorb and store water, filter storm water runoff, and provide wildlife habitat. Placing fill to elevate homes from danger, for example, destroys habitat for young fish, while dredging channels increases water flow that makes it hard for fish to swim.
Mark Carey, mitigation division director for FEMA Region 10, which includes Washington state, said earlier this week that FEMA has approved plans for a handful of communities and about 20 more are under review. He said the agency hasn't heard back from about one-third of them and plans to follow up next week.
Carey noted, however, that FEMA has been in touch with every community since 2008 and notified them of their responsibilities. The agency has held extensive workshops to ensure they meet the requirements, he said.
"We realize that this is going to take some time to fully implement, and are committed to the long-term success of our local partners," Carey said in a statement Wednesday.
A call to a FEMA spokesman for comment regarding the conservation's plans to sue was not immediately returned.
In 2003, the National Wildlife Federation sued FEMA in Seattle over its failure to determine how the flood program affected endangered species. That led the National Marine Fisheries Service to conclude in 2008, in what's called a biological opinion, that the availability of federal flood insurance in Puget Sound encouraged development in floodplains, speeding up the loss of habitat. That opinion called for dramatically changing how the flood-insurance program was implemented in Puget Sound.
Meanwhile, local governments have been scrambling the past three years to figure out what that biological opinion meant for them and how to implement its recommendations.
Molly Lawrence, a Seattle attorney representing Property Owners for Sensible Floodplain Regulation, said many Puget Sound communities have already adopted restrictive local and state regulations that are fish-friendly and that NOAA's requirements add another unnecessary layer of rules.
"We have laws on the books that do this," Lawrence said.
Environmentalists say they hope their legal notice to sue will persuade Puget Sound communities to set high development standards to protect salmon and habitat.