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Willits & The Erin Brockovich Bypass

Erin Brockovich.
Erin Brockovich.

When it comes to movies that depict real-life David vs. Goliath struggles of plain rural folks against ruthless parastatal corporations that destroy their hometown under a cloak of deceit, you really can't beat the Academy Award winning 2000 Steven Soderbergh film Erin Brockovich. You all know the plot: A down-on-her-luck, crusading legal assistant brings a giant utility to its knees for polluting the groundwater beneath her tiny desert town with hexavalent chromium.

The movie does feature all sorts of fantasies and exaggerations, but its gist is reality-based. Erin Brockovich is an actual person who lived most of her life in Hinkley, CA, an unincorporated Mojave Desert town about half-way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. For many years, California's private power monolith, PG&E, used hexavalent chromium to counteract corrosion in a cooling tower at its Hinkley Compressor Station, which serviced natural gas pipelines to the San Francisco Bay Area.

As the movie portrays, PG&E had a policy of discharging chromium 6-contaminated water from its cooling tower into unlined ponds, which of course made its way into the surrounding groundwater, and has since then caused horrible cancers and deformities among nearby residents.

Let's linger in the realm of reality for the moment. PG&E's chromium plume — which the company originally went to great lengths to cover up -- is still spreading. In the last few years, PG&E has been buying houses in Hinkley from anybody who wants to leave, even if they don't live in an area with documented contamination. They are demolishing the houses and planting alfalfa fields. It's safe to say Hinkley is one of the last places in the country that will be experiencing a population boom anytime soon.

Now, let's switch over to the fantasy realm, one that Hollywood script writers are supposed to inhabit by nature of their profession, but which you might like to think think multi-billion dollar pubic agencies like the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) are inimical to.

CalTrans claims that Erin Brockovich's hometown is about to experience a population surge. They say Hinkley will soon be beset with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Thus, CalTrans intends to build the Hinkley Bypass to alleviate the problem beginning in about 2015.

Right about now, you would be forgiven for concluding that you are reading a parody piece, one that has as its real indirect aim to underscore the absurdity of the Willits Bypass. After all, CalTrans has sold its highly destructive six-mile boondoggle around Willits to government regulators and elected officials based on similar fantasies about soaring population and traffic figures. I presented this information in a June piece entitled “How CalTrans Sold The Willits Bypass,” which owes a lot to the research of Redwood Valley resident Julia Frech.

Here is an actual excerpt from CalTrans' “State Route 58 Hinkley Expressway Project” Environmental Impact Statement, published in December 2012, and available here: “Average daily traffic (ADT) is forecast to nearly double, from 12,100 vehicles in 2011 to 24,100 vehicles in 2040. If no improvements are made, this highway segment is projected to deteriorate... with heavy traffic congestion and great variations in speed.”

State Route 58 is a 240-mile freeway that extends from Highway 101 near San Luis Obispo Interstate 15 (I-15) in Barstow. Lots of truck traffic passes through Hinkley, though the traffic never slows below 50 MPH during peak periods. CalTrans' plan is to move Route 58 a half-mile over to the south, and to build two interchanges with on/off ramps for the roads through Hinkley, at a taxpayer-funded cost that CalTrans estimated to be roughly $159 million.

As Julia Frech, who recently visited Hinkley, points out, “By the time Caltrans is done building the new freeway in Hinkley, hardly anybody would be left there, leaving the current 58 an empty highway, with empty interchanges.”

It bears repeating that the methods CalTrans has used to sell the Hinkley and Willits bypasses to pubic agencies, and to the people the bypasses would allegedly serve, are strikingly similar.

In the case of the Hinkley Expressway, CalTrans has arbitarily established so-called “Level of Service 'C' ” as the project's traffic goal. “Level of Service” is a rubric that guides decisions regarding how many lanes are needed in the new roadway to accommodate the amount of traffic projected to use it. As of now, the Highway 58 segment through town is only two lanes. If traffic volumes are above a certain level, though, it becomes necessary based on established policy to build a four-lane freeway that achieve the “level of service” in question.

That's where CalTrans' claim that Hinkley's population and traffic are on the verge of soaring enters into play. Based on CalTrans' projection that Hinkley's traffic volume will be increasing four percent per year for the foreseeable future, the only way Highway 58 can achieve “Level of Service 'C' ” in that region is if CalTrans is handed over $100 million in taxpayer funding to build a four-lane freeway around town, then dole out the funds its favored construction contractors.

CalTrans has used the exact same playbook in Willits. In 1992, as the agency was ramping up for the Willits Bypass, its personnel generated an estimate that traffic would increase roughly two percent per year through town across the next two decades.

We're now more than two decades on from that projection, and Willits traffic has remained flat or even declined somewhat. Yet, because of the falsified traffic data, and because “Level of Service 'C' is the stated goal for the Willits Bypass, CalTrans' honchos have been able to exclude from consideration all two-lane options for rerouting traffic.

Countless local residents have argued for years that if CalTrans has to build a bypass around Willits, there is plenty of room to do so on the already-existing Northern Pacific railroad corridor for both a two-lane bypass and the railroad. This two-lane route would cost a small fraction of what the now in-construction Willits Bypass does, while also having a fraction of the environmental impact and avoiding the Little Lake wetlands entirely.

Preferable to that, even, would be for CalTrans to use a combination of minor adjustments to the existing traffic engineering scheme in town, such as restriping the needless left turn lane that runs for more than a quarter mile south of Highway 20, to relieve what traffic congestion does exist.

For a clear and concise explanation of the exact methods by which CalTrans inflated Willits' traffic figures — much the same as with Hinkley — you can access the video “How CalTrans Sold The Willits Bypass” at

It's not just Willits and Hinkley where CalTrans is employing these methods. Big Orange is using the same approach to sell a bypass around Olancha, a waypoint on US Route 395, a freeway that stretch from the north Mojave Desert, around the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevadas, up and over these same mountains, and into Reno, NV. This new expressway would destroy roughly 400 acres of quite rare desert wetlands habitat, including habitat for the endangered desert tortoise. The Olancha bypass would begin construction between 2016 and 2018. Estimated cost: about $100 million.

There's also the Kramer Junction bypass, which is also along Highway 58. And there are the highway widening projects at Richardson Grove and on Highway 197/199 along the Smith River, in far northern California.

How many other CalTrans projects are using or have used this playbook? It's beyond the scope of this article to figure that out. It's long past time, though, that Big Orange be held to account for lying to justify projects that destroy natural communities, while greatly damaging the economic and cultural vitality of small towns.

An overarching issue is the existence of the transportation industrial complex, which is fueled by the mega-trucking industry and the highway construction industry, with CalTrans as their agent. As Rosamond Crowder of the Willits Environmental Center put it, “CalTrans takes our tax dollars and they serve the Complex.”

There's another thread that connects the Willits and Erin Brockovich bypasses: chemical contamination. As many people reading this will recall, Willits has had its own public health catastrophe involving hexavalent chromium that originated in the mid-20th century. For many years, Willits was home to a RemCo hydraulics plant that provided chrome plating for military gear throughout much of the Cold War.

Based on decades of illegal dumping and spills adjacent to residential neighborhoods, schools and busy commercial areas, a cocktail of chromium and other chemicals contaminated Willits' groundwater. Runoff poured through a storm drain straight into Baechtel Creek. People sickened and died.

A new scandal over chemical contamination in Willits might be emerging. As I addressed two weeks ago in these pages, CalTrans' contractors hauled fill soil from the old Apache Mill site north of Willits for nine days in August, dumping this soil on the wick drain fields of the Little Lake wetlands where the bypass' northern interchange is slated for construction.

The filling operation was clearly illegal, being that it had not undergone any public review process. Abandoned mill sites are notorious for having high levels of chemical contamination. A lawsuit by the Willits Environmental Center and Keep the Code against the Mendocino County Planning Department halted the operation.

Roughly a week later, though, CalTrans switched to obtaining its fill from a hillside on the south end of town, just south of Walker Rd. Dump trucks are again running all night, from roughly 7pm to 7am, dumping fill dirt right on top of the possibly contaminated soil that is already spread out across the wetlands. These wetlands, of course, are connected to much of the watershed of Little Lake Valley via the creeks that drain into it and from it.

The soils study that CalTrans conducted prior to commencing the hauling of this potentially contaminated fill been made available to the public. I obtained the study right before this issue of the AVA goes to press. It was conducted by TestAmerica Laboratories of Pleasanton on CalTrans and completed on March 15, 2013 (only a few days before the California Highway Patrol dislodged protesters who had blocked the beginning of construction for several weeks).

The study indicates extremely elevated level of mercury, arsenic, and various other dangerous chemicals in the soil CalTrans used. Moreover, the study failed to test for the presence of polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs), known as dioxins, which are a common (and extremely harmful) contaminant of mill sites.

Spokesman Phil Frisbie, Jr. provided this statement to KGO TV reporter Jennifer Olmey:

“The results from one of these samples indicated high elevated levels of chromium. Soil at this location was not used for our project. Other samples at the site tested positive for diesel fuel. Further research revealed that rotting wood debris can cause a false positive for this test, and since the site was previously a lumber mill, and the levels detected were low, soil from that area of site was determined to be acceptable for use.”

Frisbie avoids addressing mercury, arsenic, dioxin, and the rest in this statement. We'll have more on this story next week.

Contact Will Parrish at wparrish(at)


  1. John Sakowicz September 11, 2013

    Nice article, Will.

  2. Tim September 14, 2013

    Yes, an argument well made, but worth noting that Erin Brockovich never lived in Hinckley. She did enlist the towns’ residents in a class action suit with the support of her boss, attorney Ed Masrey; though his firm located in Ventura County. But she never lived anywhere near Hinckley.

    • Lickity Split September 16, 2013

      Well, which is it?

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