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Lawsuits & Litigation

Road Work Puts Mount St. Helens Research Site at Risk, Lawsuit Claims

— March 24, 2021

The U.S. Forest Service was recently hit with a lawsuit to try and stop the construction of a road through the blast zone of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The U.S. Forest Service is under fire in a lawsuit filed by a handful of scientists and conservationists looking to stop a “plan to build a road through the blast zone of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.” The plaintiffs filed their complaint in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington earlier this week. They allege the “U.S. Forest Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.”

Construction cone
Construction cone; image courtesy of MabelAmber via Pixabay,

According to the U.S. Forest Service, 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.” The road would make it easier for the agency to “bring in necessary equipment.

The plaintiffs include “Cascade Forest Conservancy, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Washington Native Plant Society, Sierra Club, Dr. John Bishop, Dr. James E. Gawel, and Susan Saul.” They’re being represented by Susan Jane Brown. Brown is an attorney with The Western Environmental Law Center. When commenting on the case, 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.” She added:

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

Why are the plaintiffs worried about the road construction, though? What’s the worse that could happen? For starters, the researchers are worried 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.” She further noted the plaintiffs are worried 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.” On top of that, the project could end up causing irreparable damage to the “popular Truman Trail in the Mount St. Helens National Monument.”

The U.S. Forest Service has been looking for better, more efficient ways to monitor the Spirit Lake water levels for years. When the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens happened, it caused the material to form a natural dam “that blocked the outlet of Spirit Lake, where it had previously flowed into the North Fork Toutle River.” The Forest Service is worried 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.

In 1982, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service set up a temporary pumping station to help stabilize the lake level. That pumping station included a 1.6-mile tunnel that drains water from Spirit Lake into South Fork Coldwater Creek. Earlier this month, the Forest Service announced plans to move forward with a “project to replace the Spirit Lake tunnel intake gate in an effort to protect communities downstream from the lake.

When commenting on the matter, Brown said the plaintiffs want to find a solution to the problem, but noted that “Forest Service hasn’t made many, if any, changes to the project after they expressed their concerns on how the road could impact their research.” In filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are hoping to convince the Forest Service to “take the time to conduct an environmental impact statement and to take a more comprehensive approach to the project.”


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

Spirit Lake Tunnel Intake Gate Replacement and Geotechnical Drilling Project

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