Lawsuit: Mount St. Helens road project could damage research sites

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Scientists say some of the research sites threatened by the road have been around since the 1980 erruption.

Spirit Lake in the foothills of Mount St. Helens. (Undated, USGS)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Several scientists and conservationists are suing the U.S. Forest Service with the intention of stopping a plan to build a road through the blast zone of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. 

The groups filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington on Monday. They claim the U.S. Forest Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The U.S. Forest Service says it plans to build the road through the Pumice Plain of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument so it can bring in equipment to replace the original intake gate at Spirit Lake Tunnel and conduct geotechnical drilling to determine if the conditions are safe enough for possible future alternate outflow systems to control the water levels in Spirit Lake.

Susan Jane Brown, an attorney with The Western Environmental Law Center, is representing the plaintiffs in the case: Cascade Forest Conservancy, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Washington Native Plant Society, Sierra Club, Dr. John Bishop, Dr. James E. Gawel, and Susan Saul. 

Brown said her clients recognize that there is a long-term public health and safety need to investigate the Spirit Lake outflow, but want the Forest Service to take a more comprehensive approach. 

“For researchers to get so upset that they’re willing to file a lawsuit, that’s pretty amazing and I think it really does demonstrate the severity and significance of this project,” Brown said. 

Researchers fear that if the Forest Service builds a road across the Pumice Plain, it could have “devastating” consequences for decades-old research sites, some of which have existed since the volcano erupted in 1980. Brown said the area surrounding Mount St. Helens is unique and still geologically active. It’s a place where scientists can see how soil forms and how living organisms return after a volcanic eruption. 

The plaintiffs in the case believe a road through the Pumice Plain will alter hydrology, destroy native vegetation, create unnatural noise disturbances, kill living organisms, increase dust, spread invasive species, cause erosion, and increase sedimentation of waterways. 

They also say the project would irreparably damage the popular Truman Trail in the Mount St. Helens National Monument. 

For years, the U.S. Forest Service has been considering a more secure way to ensure Spirit Lake remains at a safe level. 

When Mount St. Helens erupted, the eruption material formed a natural dam that blocked the outlet of Spirit Lake, where it had previously flowed into the North Fork Toutle River. The Forest Service fears that if the dam breaches, the lake could release more than 314,000 acre-feet of water and 2.4 billion cubic yards of sediment downstream. The flood would be catastrophic.

To help prevent this, in 1982, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service established a temporary pumping station to help stabilize the lake level. The Army Corps of Engineers completed an environmental impact statement in 1984 before forming a 1.6-mile outflow tunnel that drains water from Spirit Lake into South Fork Coldwater Creek. It was a permanent way of managing the water level and keep it 30 to 35 feet below the lake’s bank to reduce the risk of catastrophe, but officials have still remained concerned over the years. 

Now, they say the tunnel needs more attention. They say the gate that regulates how much water goes into the tunnel needs to be replaced. This would require them to bring in barges and drilling equipment.

On Tuesday, March 16, the Forest Service announced that the agency would be going forward with a project to replace the Spirit Lake tunnel intake gate in an effort to protect communities downstream from the lake. 

Before finalizing the project, the U.S. Forest Service says in its decision notice that it made an environmental assessment and has taken steps to minimize environmental impacts of the project. It says it chose to build a longer road rather than another option that would require a greater reliance on using helicopters. The Forest Service says the project it settled on will minimize ground disturbance. 

Also, while conservationists are concerned about the damage to the Truman Trail, the Forest Service says it is choosing to build the road on the trail because it would minimize soil impacts because previous soil disturbance already damaged the soil features.

Brown says her clients want to find a solution to the Spirit Lake concerns. However, she says the Forest Service hasn’t made many, if any, changes to the project after her clients expressed their concerns on how the road could impact their research. 

They want the Forest Service to take the time to conduct an environmental impact statement and to take a more comprehensive approach to the project. 

In their lawsuit, the organizations and researchers fighting the project say they hope the court finds that it violates the National Forest Management Act and National Environmental Policy Act. 

The U.S. Forest Service told KOIN 6 News it cannot comment on pending litigation. 

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