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A lawsuit over projects to boost shipping in Virginia is on the radar of an Oklahoma waterways group

Albert Herring
Virginia State Parks

An environmental nonprofit is suing a federal government agency over work to expand barge traffic in Virginia, and that has a group focused on Oklahoma waterways on high alert.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit last week against the U.S. Maritime Administration for its Marine Highway program.

"This one specifically targets the James River and the Atlantic sturgeon, but they’re basically wanting MARAD to now add another layer of checks and balances regarding biological diversity. It’s something we need to follow and be aware of," said Tulsa Port of Catoosa Director David Yarbrough.

The lawsuit claims MARAD has not had required consultations from wildlife groups as it works to expand barge traffic on the James River through its Marine Highway program. The Center for Biological Diversity said that’s threatening recovery of the endangered Atlantic sturgeon.

"Vessel traffic is decimating vulnerable wildlife in the James River and across the country," senior attorney Jared Margolis said in a news release. "Federal officials can’t keep sacrificing our waters and wildlife by ignoring the impacts of a program that has the potential to cause widespread harm."

Yarbrough told the Oklahoma Department of Transportation Waterways Advisory Board he believes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for much of the navigation system’s maintenance and repairs, has followed federal law on environmental reviews. But there are concerns a broad ruling in the case could affect projects Oklahoma officials are pursuing because the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System that runs through northeast Oklahoma is part of the Marine Highway system and eligible for federal grants.

"That would – I can’t imagine what that would do to traffic, if the waterways were threatened. And with all the discussion … about Washington, D.C., anything is possible. So, we need to pay attention to that," said waterways advisory board member Brad Thomas.

MARAD has $11 million in grants available for 2021.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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