Opponents hope bat, mussel can stop Illiana construction
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent June 18, 2014 7:46PM
Northern Long-eared Bat | US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Updated: July 20, 2014 6:18AM
A bat and a mussel could jeopardize construction of the Illiana Tollway, something that hundreds of local residents opposed to the project have been unable to do.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has raised concerns about how the proposed 47-mile highway would affect the endangered sheepnose mussel and the threatened long-eared bat, James Earl, project manager for the Indiana Department of Transportation, recently told the transportation committee of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
There’s also continued concern about how the tollway would impact the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County. The tollway, estimated to cost $1.5 billion, would run from Interstate 65 near Lowell to I-55 near Wilmington, Illinois.
Environmental groups have been worried about the highway’s environmental impact since the first environmental study was completed in 2012. Andrew Armstrong, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago has filed two lawsuits in trying to stop the highway.
“That we are now this far along in the process and we still don’t have an opinion on endangered species, that just makes it obvious that this project has not received the thorough consideration it needs,” Armstrong said.
Patricia Mussman, wife of West Creek Township Trustee Harold Mussman, said that’s what they and those opposed to the Illiana Tollway have been saying all along. Those against the tollway have been pinning their hopes on environmental lawsuits to derail the project after resident and local politician opposition failed to halt it.
“It’s been red-flagged. I’m thrilled. I’m absolutely thrilled,” Patricia Mussman said. “There are so many reasons why this is not a good idea.”
She said the tollway will cut through several Indiana wetlands, and opponents are concerned about the long-term effects it would have on those areas as well as what they believe is the understated cost to build the tollway.
In October, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the northern long-eared bat as endangered due to its susceptibility to white-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed millions of the bats in the northeast areas of the U.S. and is spreading to the Southeast and Midwest. The long-eared bat can be found in 39 states.
The sheepnose mussel has been listed as endangered since March 2012.
Mussman hopes identifying endangered or threatened species in the path of the Illiana Tollway will be enough to stop it.
INDOT’s Earl said the federal approval for the toll road that was expected by June is now likely to come by September. That’s needed before property acquisition can begin. He said INDOT now forecasts that it will be late summer or fall of 2015 before construction could start.
Ty Warner, executive director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, said NIRPC gave its approval to the tollway last fall, and what happens now is out of its hands. Warner said NIRPC will be watching to see what impact, if any, threatened or endangered species may have on the project.
Contributing: The AP