Willits News: 7/30/14
A third lawsuit has been filed against Caltrans’ highway-widening project through Richardson Grove State Park, which claims that the state agency failed to properly analyze and address the environmental impacts of its plan as it was instructed to in a 2012 federal court decision.
The complaint was filed Monday evening at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the same seven plaintiffs who had previously filed a federal and state lawsuit against Caltrans after the agency approved the project and adopted a federal environmental assessment that found widening had no significant impacts on old growth redwoods. The project seeks to increase the road width of about 1 mile of U.S. Highway 101 that passes through Richardson Grove in order to allow the currently restricted Surface Transportation Assistance Act-sized trucks to use the highway north of Leggett.
“STAA trucks have been restricted from this section of U.S. Route 101 because the tight radius curves between the large redwood trees make it difficult for the longer trucks to stay within the travel lane without using part of the opposing lane of traffic (‘off-tracking’) or traveling off the roadway and using unpaved shoulders,” a Caltrans project document states.
After U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup issued an injunction that halted future construction in April 2012, he ordered that the stage agency revise its environmental assessment to address inaccuracies in its data and revise its analysis of potential redwood root zone damage.
Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said a proper environmental assessment never occurred.
“The judge told them you need to go back and do an accurate analysis. The judge found there was a lack of analysis and mismeasurements made,” she said. “They’ve gone back, they’ve done this little bit of work, but they’re not using that to do a new analysis. They’ve looked and saw there are more trees that may be affected, but still find that there are no significant impacts.”
Caltrans’ District One Public Information Officer Phil Frisbie Jr. said the agency had not received a copy of the complaint yet.
“Caltrans was just made aware of this third lawsuit this morning when we saw the press release like everyone else,” he said Tuesday. “At this point, we have not seen the official court documents.”
In late January, Caltrans released a supplement to its environmental assessment, stating that it had reassessed potential impacts to old growth redwoods, updated the number and species of trees that will be removed, updated its tree mapping and made minor changes to the design of existing and proposed barrier rails.
“No old growth redwoods would be removed for the project, and the Department has evaluated the potential for project impacts to their roots,” the supplement states.
Caltrans published its notice of approval in February, according to the complaint.
Peter Galvin, director of programs for the Center for Biological Diversity and another plaintiff in the dispute, said Caltrans has shown that it’s more interested in completing the project than addressing environmental damages by filing an environmental assessment rather than a more in-depth environmental impact statement.
“They’ve never taken a hard look at this project,” Galvin said. “They’ve determined from day one to do their highway expansion project at great impact on root zones of the redwoods. Caltrans has been basically trying to constrain the analysis and make it seem as if this is a small project impacting a grove of redwoods, when in fact it’s a project that would have severe impacts on the root zone.”
The seven plaintiffs in the case, four individuals and three environmental organizations — EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics — said they filed the suit to protect old growth redwoods along with the nearby Eel River and several species, such as the endangered northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet and coho salmon.
“I believe the number is now over 100 trees are within the project area that would be disturbed by this project,” DeLapp said. “We believe that Richardson Grove State Park is supposed to be protective. These trees were put under the protection of the state park to be protected into perpetuity.”
Caltrans’ supplemental report states that it found no marbled murrelets in the project area.
Humboldt County Economic Development Coordinator Jacqueline Debets said by allowing standard-sized shipping trucks into the county, the project will relieve financial burdens and increase economic opportunities for local businesses. Limiting businesses to smaller trucks is creating its own environmental impacts, she said.
“We’re using older refrigerator trucks, which have to be run at a higher level, and they’re not going to be as anywhere as fuel- or emission-efficient,” she said. “Cypress Grove Chevre is moving a refrigerated, perishable project. It costs them eight times as much to move it here to San Francisco than it is to move it from San Francisco to New York.”
According to Debets, one Arcata-based business relocated some of its services to Louisiana after an East Coast company that bought patented pollution control equipment from the business stipulated that the products not be shipped out of Humboldt county due to transportation difficulties on U.S. Highway 101.
“We exported our innovations and our jobs to Louisiana to have that product made,” she said. “That’s a really sad outcome.”
The plaintiffs argue in the complaint that there are alternatives to construction such as granting more exceptions to STAA trucks or relying on one of its other highway improvement projects, like the ongoing Big Buckhorn Summit project on Highway 299, to create an access point into Humboldt County.
“Let that open and see what our community’s needs are after that,” DeLapp said. “Once that project is completed, we can see what the needs of our community are, if they still exist.”
While Highway 299 would provide access to Redding and other areas, Debets said many industries ship products north and south from San Francisco.
“It’s trying to tell industry how to design itself and where it should be,” Debets said about the suggestion. “I try to talk to every industry leader, they all said it’s south. It’s much bigger. It’s not looking at the reality of global markets and the forces at work. Transportation is not a route, it’s a system. Caltrans is never looking at a route. It’s looking at a system of intermodal transportation and how does it fit together and work together.”
At the state level, the plaintiffs requested the Humboldt County Superior Court at a July 23 hearing to issue a writ of mandate directing Caltrans to vacate approval of the project and its certification of its environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act. The request comes after the California Court of Appeal reversed a 2012 trial court decision in January that stated the project’s environmental impact report did not violate CEQA. The appellate court also directed Caltrans to reevaluate the document.
DeLapp said the plaintiffs are currently waiting to hear back from both the federal and state courts.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.