Willits >> The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and the Round Valley Band of Pomo Indians filed a federal lawsuit this week against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highways Commission, and the California Department of Transportation and their respective agency directors, citing ongoing concerns about damage to archeological sites, cultural resources, and wetlands in the Willits Bypass Project and mitigation program.
The lawsuit filed on Thursday alleges Caltrans violated the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Acts, the Administrative Procedure Act, and federal highway statutes by failing to adequately consult with local tribes to protect cultural resources located on the project via the Section 106 process for government-to-government consultations.
The tribes are requesting work be halted until concerns are addressed, including the completion of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report; a written agreement concerning how cultural resources will be surveyed, protected, and managed; and compensation for damage which has already occurred.
According to a Caltrans release, the agency has been working with the “tribes regularly over the last two years” and 95 percent of the ground disturbance activity has already been completed.
Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said the suit was “factually inaccurate, and are damaging not only to this project … but also to the taxpayers of California, who will ultimately end up footing the bill for this unnecessary legal action.”
The Willits Bypass project adds more than 6 miles of new highway — including two new interchanges — to the east of the Mendocino city’s downtown to reroute traffic, which can become backed up in the current series of traffic signals.
Tribal representatives said they have expressed concerns about these issues to Caltrans and permitting agencies since prior to start of project construction, and have experienced repeated frustrations in reaching agreement with the agency over a variety of project issues. An agreement was expected to be addressed in the creation of a “programmatic agreement,” a document which was supposed to have been completed before work started on the project three seasons ago, according to the tribes.
The suit requests work on the project stop until the named agencies “adequately address the direct, indirect, and cumulative cultural, environmental, and historic impacts of the Willits Bypass Project; identify and finalize the details of the mitigation plan or its environmental and cultural impacts; and commit to necessary mitigation measures.”
Phil Gregory, representing the tribes from law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, said the tribes’ hope is that the lawsuit will prevent further damage to sites not yet impacted during construction and mitigation work. Gregory said the tribes had yet to decide whether to file a temporary restraining order, which would request work be stopped prior to the initial hearing in court, but were planning to file an injunction to stop work.
“The key point here is that Caltrans has been claiming all along that it will enter into a programmatic agreement, but the most recent version of the PA is regressing from its prior position,” he said. “Caltrans is treating the tribes more and more like second class citizens, and not doing what it represented it was going to do in the context of the PA. The tribes are fed up, and feel that Caltrans is not going to negotiate going forward in good faith, and a court needs to intervene.” According to Frisbie, Caltrans sent a final draft of a programmatic agreement to the three tribes on Thursday. The letter states the project is 80 percent complete, requests a response by Nov, 16 and states, “Caltrans is bringing the PA to a conclusion … the draft final and its attachments is the result of Caltrans’ sincere efforts to develop an agreement that is satisfactory to all parties.”
Frisbie said the agency had not been served as of Friday afternoon. A Caltrans press release on Friday states that Caltrans has followed all state and federal laws, all cultural resources identified during project development have been avoided, potential cultural areas are being properly handled, and government-to-government consultations are held every time a tribe asks.
The mitigation project, the largest in Caltrans history, covers almost 2,000 acres in the valley.