Who Will Stop CalTrans?

by Will Parrish, August 27, 2013

CalTrans Drains

In the pre-dawn hours of August 18th, CalTrans contractor FlatIron Construction sent a fleet of dump trucks and excavators into one of inland Mendocino County's most historically pivotal sites, Mendocino Forest Products Co's shuttered Apache Mill site three miles north of Willits (formerly a Louisiana Pacific mill), to begin removing three hills to dump on the northern Little Lake wetlands, in the approximate area where I conducted a “wick drain stitcher sit” from June 20th to July 1st. The dumping is taking place at the site of the ecologically calamitous northern interchange area of Big Orange's Willits bypass, where the freeway would be built upon a massive berm up to 35 feet high.

Mendocino Forest Products Co. is a division of Mendocino Redwood Company, which owns 10 percent of Mendocino County's private land (I wrote several stories about MRC, particularly its penchant for using the herbicide Imazapyr across a large portion of its lands, last year). In other words, Mendocino County's largest landowner is intent on offloading three hills worth of soil to Little Lake Valley's largest landowner, CalTrans, to dump and compact upon the most hydrologically crucial area of the Little Lake Valley watershed, all with the rubber-stamp approval of Mendocino County's permitting agency, the Planning Department.

The day this issue of the AVA goes to press marks the ninth day the excavators have excavated and the dump trucks have dumped. But it may be the second to last -- at least for the time being. On Wednesday, August 28th at 1:30 a.m., Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Cindy Mayfield will consider a Stop Worker Order request from the Willits Environmental Center, which has filed a lawsuit that aims to halt the fill dirt hauling on the grounds there was no Environmental Impact Review.

As of this writing, CalTrans has installed an estimated 30,000-35,000 wick drains in the area in question, with roughly 20,000-25,000 still to be installed. Wick drain installation began in early-May. They plan to dump 885,000 cubic yards of fill onto the wick-drain wetlands areas. The weight of the soil activates the polypropylene wick drains, pulling groundwater from as deep as 85 feet to the surface, causing it to evaporate or run off into nearby waterways (including Outlet Creek, part of the longest Coho salmon run remaining in California). Meanwhile, the chief regulator of the Army Corps of Engineers' San Francisco office, Jane Hicks, sent a letter to CalTrans threatening fines, or even suspension or revocation of the permit to construct the Bypass, if Big Orange doesn't get its act together vis-a-vis its commitments to manage roughly 2,000 acres of “mitigation” properties in Little Lake Valley. Although the “mitigation” plan CalTrans and the Army Corps agreed to is terribly flawed to begin with, as I described in the April 30 AVA piece “The Bypass 'Mitigation' Charade, CalTrans has followed through on virtually none of the commitments it originally made when the Army Corps granted it a the Bypass construct permit in February 2012.

Notably, in the first of five violations the Army Corps letter mentions, it calls out CalTrans on not having studied the impacts of wick draining, let alone having submitted that analysis to regulatory agencies to review. The letter asks CalTrans to “schedule a meeting between Corps staff and Caltrans hydrologists to discuss potential secondary effects from wick drains on wetland hydrology, specifically shallow epiaquic saturation and groundwater through-flow affecting wetland hydrology criteria and duration in existing wetlands.”

Rumor has it the Army Corps was not even aware CalTrans planned to install the wick drains until this year, given that Big Orange failed to mention this rather obviously environmentally impactful aspect of the project in any but one of the environmental impact evaluations it submitted. CalTrans' lone advance notice about the wick drains was in Section 5.5.6 of its 2002 Draft Environmental Impact Report, which describes them as “minor and isolated intrusions.”

The wick draining has also been a flashpoint of resistance to the Bypass, involving several dramatic direct actions that slowed the installation of the drains by at least a few weeks over the summer. Willits City Councilmember Madge Strong sent a letter to the Army Corps' Hicks on August 26th, requesting that she suspend CalTrans' permit ” i.e., suspend project construction -- to allow time for considering scaling back the project.

“At this point in the process, it is still feasible to dramatically reduce the impact of this 'Phase 1' project by scaling back the massive, unnecessary northern interchange. For USACE to fully consider the impacts, the “necessity,” and opportunities to resolve these issues in the public’s best interest, it is essential to immediately stop further wick-draining and filling while these options still exist.”

The permit to allow CalTrans/FlatIron to haul soil from the erstwhile Apache Mill site was granted on July 2nd by Mendocino County planner John Speka. He cited a provision of the 1975 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) that permits exemptions from normal environmental review protocol to property owners who are engaged in “land improvement.”

“Improvement” in this sense recalls the etymological origins of that word, which derives from the Anglo-French emprouwer, meaning “to turn into profit.” Removing three hillsides to compact their soil onto the northern interchange area of a freeway that would ultimately cost at least $500 million to construct, including interest on bonds, is certainly a way of turning this land into profit.

Yet, as anyone who lived in Mendocino County when there were active mills , the mills are often laden with toxic debris, resulting from chemicals used in removing bark and treating the wood. As the Occupational Health and Safety Administration notes, “The volume and physical properties of chemicals found in sawmills pose a wide range of health hazards.”

Moreover, as many observers have pointed out, a blatant double-standard is at work here. The Mendocino County Planning Department forces people to endure an onerous bureaucratic process, often lasting for years, simply to get out-buildings and sheds permitted. Yet, it rubber-stamps a permit application to utterly remove three hills from what was formerly the home of one of the most significant industrial installations in the county?

It will remain for Judge Mayfield to decide on August 28th, however, whether the dislocation of these potentially chemically contaminated hills onto the Little Lake wetlands continues.

Because CalTrans essentially is the California road construction industry, and because every politician -- including liberal Democrats like Noreen Evans, one of the only elected officials to raise some objections to the Bypass -- in the state has a co-dependent relationship with said industry, Caltrans almost always gets a wide berth when it comes to following regulations. Yet, Big Orange has already been cited multiple times for not following protocol regarding toxics on this very project.

On August 26, 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board nailed CalTrans with six violations for demolishing a building, which may have had asbestos, and excavating soil without first getting a permit. In March 2011, the Water Board hit CalTrans with another set of violations when it excavated a bark dump on what was the John Ford Ranch property, before Caltrans bought it to perform its wetlands “mitigation” work. The bark at this dump was from the very same mill site where CalTrans is now obtaining its construction soil. Bark is often treated with deadly chemicals at mill sites to aid in its removal from logs.

As Rosamond Crowder from the Willits Environmental Center notes, “It is important to stop work before toxics are transported into the wetlands, not issue a violation after the fact which is what happened in the other cases.” Brendan Thompson of the State Water Resources Control Board reports that his office is “actively following up” on citizen complaints about the soil excavation but is not yet “able to report back findings to the public.”

All told, the possibility of stopping the Willits Bypass as currently conceived remains very much alive, thanks to the persistence and tactical strength of the people opposing it. We'll report back on this story in next week's AVA.

Contact Will Parrish at wparrish@riseup.net.

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