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SEATTLE, WA - A national food group is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleging it is allowing commercial shellfish aquaculture to expand in Washington state without adequate environmental scrutiny.

The Center for Food Safety says the Corps violated federal laws when it approved a general permit in January for shellfish operations without fully considering cumulative environmental impacts of shellfish operations across the state. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court in Seattle.

"We're really concerned that it's going to be a rubber stamp situation," said Amy van Saun, an attorney for the nonprofit group based in Portland, Oregon.

The agency didn't properly weigh environmental impacts from so many shellfish aquaculture activities, and should have done a full environment review, she said.

The "permit allows for greatly increased conversion of tidelands into intensive shellfish operations without protections for crucial aquatic habitats," the lawsuit said.

Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser on Friday declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The agency has said its so-called nationwide permit 48 was "revised to provide greater flexibility in its use." The permit is designed to provide expedited review of projects that have minimal impact on the aquatic environment.

In issuing the so-called nationwide permit in March, the Army Corps said that the terms and conditions will ensure that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities "will result in no more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse environmental effects."

But opponents argue that the Corps fails to consider that together such shellfish aquaculture operations will have a major impact.

"The way it's practiced, it's way too big of an impact cumulatively," van Saun said.

The group said in its lawsuit that shellfish farming can harm the environment by removing eelgrass beds; dense shellfish farms can hamper shoreline biodiversity; and the use of nets, plastic tubes and other gear pose challenges to birds and other wildlife.

Van Saun said it's worrisome that the Corps changed its definition of what constitutes a new shellfish aquaculture operation, potentially opening the door to unchecked expansion.

Under the new permit that went into effect in March, the Corps' considers a shellfish operation to be new only if it occurs in an area where shellfish aquaculture has not been conducted during the past 100 years.

Many in the industry believe the permit does a good job supporting the environment while giving the industry the appropriate guidelines, said Margaret Pilaro Barrette, executive director of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

"This industry has been regulated and will continue to be regulated," she added. "Shellfish growers need to have a clean, healthy environment to operation. Clean water is something we've been advocating for generations. There's no interest in circumventing regulations."

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