Environmentalists Sue U.S. to Stop Genetic-Hybrid Tree Tests in 7 States

Environmental groups sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to block tests of a genetically- engineered hybrid of the eucalyptus tree in “secret sites” across the southern states.

The groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, said today in a statement that the government agency approved the tests at 28 undisclosed sites in seven states “with minimal environmental review.” The tests will be conducted by a joint venture that includes International Paper Co, the world’s largest maker of white paper used in offices.

The fast-growing “cold-tolerant” genetically-engineered eucalyptus trees could displace native species of plants and increase the risk of wildfires, according to the complaint filed in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida.

ArborGen LLC, the venture that will conduct the tests, also includes MeadWestvaco Corp. and Rubicon Ltd., according to the statement. ArborGen may use the trees for pulp and biofuels, said Marc Fink, with the Center for Biological Diversity. The test sites are in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

In the complaint, the environmental groups ask the court to order the agriculture department to set aside the test permits and prepare an impact study. They also seek a court order barring ArborGen from allowing any of the trees to flower.

‘Safe, Reliable’

“We don’t comment on pending litigation,” Alison von Puschendorf, a spokeswoman for Richmond, Virginia-based MeadWestvaco, said in an e-mail. “We are a partner of ArborGen and support the research to develop safe, reliable solutions to fiber needs for our products, and trials such as the one ArborGen is leading are an important part of this research.”

Patty Neuhoff, a spokeswoman for Memphis, Tennessee-based International Paper, deferred comment to ArborGen spokeswoman Nancy Hood, who wasn’t immediately available.

Caleb Weaver, a spokesman for the agriculture department, said the agency doesn’t comment on “active litigation.” He described the tests as “limited.” Efforts to reach Auckland, New Zealand-based Rubicon weren’t successful.

The plaintiffs also include the Dogwood Alliance, the Global Justice Ecology Project, the International Center for Technology Assessment and the Center for Food Safety. Also named as a defendant was the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The plaintiffs provided a copy of the complaint. It wasn’t immediately available on the court’s electronic docket.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida (West Palm Beach).

To contact the reporter on this story: Don Jeffrey in New York at djeffrey1@bloomberg.net.

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