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Suit accuses U.S. of bias in toll road study

Plaintiffs say agencies downplayed potential harm to at-risk species.

August 15, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

A coalition of environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging that U.S. wildlife agencies violated endangered species protections in their support of the proposed toll road through San Onofre State Beach.

The suit, filed Wednesday in San Diego County District Court, calls the conclusions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service biased, potentially leading to an "ecological disaster."

The lawsuit alleges the federal agencies capitulated to toll road planners' requests, "downplaying" the effect the 16-mile, six-lane stretch of road would have on roughly half a dozen species such as the Pacific pocket mouse, the arroyo toad and the Southern steelhead trout.

"It's an incredible concentration of threatened and endangered species that are going to be affected by this road," said Brian Segee, a staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, one of 11 organizations named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which funds and builds Orange County toll roads, said that "a lot of work went into designing the alignment to avoid the most sensitive areas of habitat."

She said the agency had planned more than 200 mitigation measures, such as under-freeway animal crossings and protective fencing.

The proposed extension of California 241 would connect south Orange County east of Mission Viejo with Interstate 5 near Basilone Road in north San Diego County. The controversial route, which slices through part of San Onofre State Beach -- home to the world-class Trestles surf break -- and the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy, has sparked a roughly decade-long environmental battle.

The lawsuit alleges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revised its original opinion, removing passages about the destruction of mouse and toad habitat at the request of the toll road agency. The federal agency concluded in May that the $1.3-billion road "is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of six vulnerable species.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jane Hendron emphasized that projects are reviewed regarding the preservation of a species as a whole, rather than a proposed action's individual effects.

The 40-page lawsuit goes on to criticize the National Marine Fisheries Service for not adequately investigating the effect of the road, part of which runs through nearby San Mateo Creek watershed, on steelhead trout. The suit seeks to have the two agencies' conclusions voided and their analyses redone.

Hendron rejected the lawsuit's contention, saying the agency forms biological opinions based on "the best scientific and commercial information."

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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