Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Chicago sent comments to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that are highly critical of INDOT's preferred alternatives for Interstate 69. EPA's letter is significant for three reasons:

  • First, EPA believes that the I-70/US 41 route meets INDOT's core goals for the project as well as any of INDOT's so-called "preferred" routes, including those that would run through Bloomington.
  • Second, INDOT's so-called "preferred routes" have at least two to three times more environmental impacts as the I-70/US 41 route.
  • Third, and perhaps most important, EPA believes that all of INDOT's preferred routes run afoul of a specific provision in the Clean Water Act rules requiring that INDOT and FHWA choose the practicable alternative that has the least adverse impact on aquatic ecosystems.

According to EPA, INDOT's favored routes would have three to five times as many wetlands impacts as the I-70/US 41 route. EPA observed that "This difference [in wetlands impacts] is not likely to be overcome by careful routing of the highway alignment in Tier 2." That means INDOT's current preferred route alternatives are unlikely to satisfy the Clean Water Act requirement, no matter how INDOT designs the route's specific alignment.

For all of these reasons, EPA "highly recommended" that INDOT re-evaluate the I-70/US 41 alternative.

On Nov. 14 the Herald-Times quoted INDOT Commissioner J. Bryan Nicol as saying EPA's objections were "very common, very standard" in this kind of process. That's wishful thinking. Between 1996 and 2001, EPA gave a "pass" to the majority of draft environmental studies, and formally objected to only 14 percent. And, although EPA's comments are not necessarily legally binding on INDOT, they carry much weight and are a significant event in the I-69 study process.

In response to EPA's concerns about wetlands and other water resources impacts, INDOT made an 11th-hour announcement earlier this week that it is reviewing a new route. This route is, in part, cut and pasted from segments of INDOT's existing costly and damaging new-terrain alternatives. This route would run along US 41 to a point north of Vincennes, where it would cut across new terrain ground to near Crane and then northward to Bloomington and Indianapolis. Some newspaper reports have attributed the new route concept to a suggestion by EPA.

It's hard to know at this point exactly what EPA told INDOT. Regardless, INDOT will be hard-pressed to demonstrate that its latest scheme will pass muster under the Clean Water Act. All of INDOT's existing routes through Southwestern Indiana have many more wetlands impacts than the I-70/US 41 alternative. And INDOT's new route will cross the White River and pass through other new terrain, where wetlands, streams, and other water resources are likely present.

INDOT's latest rabbit out of the hat comes after two years of costly studies that made no mention of this route, which almost certainly will be much more costly and more environmentally damaging than US 41/I-70.

Remarkably, all that the public knows about the "new" route is in a statement by Commissioner Nicol. INDOT has not formally announced the route or even provided any details on it to the public. Indeed, up until last week INDOT had insisted that it would make a final route decision by next month. One wonders if INDOT was going to surprise the public with the "new" route in the final environmental study, but felt compelled to reveal the existence of the stealth route after press reports on EPA's negative comments.

Whatever INDOT's real intentions, its mismanagement of the environmental review process is shameful, and INDOT's announcement this week is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers who object to INDOT's obsession with a new-terrain route through the heart of Southwestern Indiana. INDOT's actions also are unlikely win any supporters in other parts of the state, who are likely to be annoyed and upset by this latest example of INDOT's mismanagement of the EIS process

John Moore is an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center of the Midwest, which, together with Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, the Hoosier Environmental Council, and a diverse coalition of business, government, and consumer interests, support the common sense choice for a new I-69: upgrading existing US 41 between Evansville and Terre Haute to interstate standards, and connecting to I-70 via an already-approved bypass.