Times Standard: 12/5/14
UPDATE: Caltrans has issued the following statement in regards to the recent Richardson Grove lawsuit dismissal:
Caltrans has voluntarily withdrawn its Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), part of its federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) documentation pertaining to the Richardson Grove Improvement Project. Based on this, the State of California filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), as it would be an unnecessary expenditure of judicial, attorney, and public resources for plaintiffs to pursue the federal litigation when further environmental review due to the state court writ may affect the federal environmental document and/or determinations.
Caltrans made its decision to withdraw its FONSI on November 17, following the October 21 entry of the state court writ. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the action after Caltrans informed them of this decision and after being served with Caltrans’ motion to dismiss.
Caltrans is conducting further environmental review to comply with the State court order. If that review affects existing or previous environmental determinations, they will be addressed accordingly.
Caltrans conducted a thorough and comprehensive environmental analysis of the project, which the State Appellate Court upheld except as to certain aspects of the redwood tree root impact analysis. Caltrans is taking appropriate actions to comply with the Appellate Court decision and resulting Superior Court Writ.
The Richardson Grove Improvement Project was designed to be environmentally protective, with emphasis on the protection of old growth redwood trees and their root systems. Caltrans thoroughly and systematically examined the potential effects of the project on individual old growth redwood trees in the project area. No old growth redwood trees will be removed for the project.
In the latest federal lawsuit against Caltrans’ Highway 101 widening project through Richardson Grove State Park, the state agency agreed to rescind its approval of its federal environmental reviews of the project in exchange for the lawsuit to be dismissed, according to a release issued today by one of the plaintiffs, the Environmental Protection Information Center.
“I don’t want to say that its over and done completely, but it’s definitely good news,” EPIC Executive Director Natalynne DeLapp said.
Several questions regarding the decision have been submitted to Caltrans’ District 1 Public Information Office, which stated it would respond today when more information becomes available to them.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in July by eight plaintiffs — the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen — is the second federal lawsuit filed against the project. The project, named the Richardson Grove Improvement project, seeks to increase the width of 1.1 miles of Highway 101 that winds through the redwood park in order to allow passage of industry standard-sized trucks that conform to the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), according to the Caltrans website. These STAA trucks are currently prohibited north of Leggett.
The first federal lawsuit was filed against the project in 2010 after Caltrans’ federal environmental review found no significant environmental impacts. The lawsuit ended with U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup issuing an injunction that halted future construction in April 2012, and ordered Caltrans to revise its environmental assessment to address inaccuracies in its data and revise its analysis of potential redwood root zone damage.
A second lawsuit filed at the state level ended with Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruling in 2012 that Caltrans did not violate the California Environmental Quality Act when it found no significant environmental impacts in its project review. The plaintiffs — four individuals, the EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics — appealed the ruling with the state appellate court, which ruled in January that Caltrans did not provide enough information on potential impacts on old growth redwood trees in the grove and did not provide mitigation measures to reduce those impacts. The court ruled Caltrans had to reevaluate its submitted environmental impact report, but DeLapp said that has not occurred yet. A request for Caltrans’ response to this aspect of the lawsuit was not immediately returned.
Caltrans responded to the 2012 federal court order by submitting a supplemental to its environmental assessment, stating that it had reassessed potential impacts to old growth redwoods lining the roadway, 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’ notice of approval for its environmental assessment was published in February.
The third lawsuit was filed by the eight plaintiffs and stated the supplement and federal environmental assessment violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not adequately addressing impacts to old growth redwoods, nearby rivers and waterways, and endangered species known to travel through the park.
DeLapp said Caltrans fell short of addressing the issue by not conducting a more in-depth environmental review.
“If they wanted to really push this project forward, they should have done an environmental impact statement and a very thorough environmental analysis,” she said. “Barring they do that, I don’t think they would be able to get approval for the project.”
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.