Environmental groups file fourth lawsuit against Richardson Grove highway widening project

A group of environmental organizations state they have filed a lawsuit today challenging Caltrans’ recently revised environmental documents for its now decade-old U.S. Highway 101 widening project through Richardson Grove. – The Times-Standard — file

The Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, or EPIC, and other environmental groups announced this morning that they have filed a fourth lawsuit challenging Caltrans’ U.S. Highway 101 widening project in Richardson Grove.

Caltrans’ 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 federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act. Project advocates say it will allow for decreased shipping costs for local businesses and improve safety on the highway, but opponents state it will damage old-growth redwood trees and impact threatened wildlife.

“Caltrans keeps pushing this nonsensical project that would do terrible damage to ancient redwoods in our state park, with no benefits to the community,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Aruna Prabhala said in a statement this morning. “There’s just no compelling traffic or safety reason to destroy these beautiful trees. The changes Caltrans claims it’s made to the project won’t protect more than 100 giant redwoods from being damaged or killed.”

Caltrans District 1 Public Information Officer Myles Cochrane said this morning that their agency cannot comment on potential pending litigation.

The lawsuit filed in the Humboldt County Superior Court today challenges Caltrans’ newly revised environmental documents for the now decade-old project. Caltrans revised the environmental documents following three lawsuits filed by EPIC since 2010 that challenged the project’s assertion that it would not cause significant environmental damage.

The most recent environmental review released in late May again found that the 1.1-mile highway widening project would not result in significant environmental damage and included a revised project plan that would reduce the number of trees that will be removed, the amount of added pavement and the amount of material that will be removed and used as fill.

Caltrans said the project would not damage or remove old-growth redwood trees.

This most recent lawsuit was filed by EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte and four “longtime local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen,” according to EPIC.

“EPIC is disappointed that Caltrans has continued to push forward, ignoring previous court warnings about the need to honestly evaluate the effects of its road widening on old-growth redwoods,” EPIC executive director and staff attorney Tom Wheeler said in a statement. “Caltrans’ road widening shows no respect for sacred parkland and irreplaceable ancient trees.”

Caltrans District 1 Public Information Officer Eli Rohl told the Times-Standard in late May that the agency had planned to start construction on the project as soon as 2019 and complete it in 2020, barring any legal challenges. Construction costs would be around $8.4 million on top of the $10 million already spent on environmental studies and consultation, Rohl said.

The agency has spent nearly $12 million in legal fees in the three lawsuits filed by EPIC, Rohl said, bringing the project’s total expenses to about $30 million.

Past litigation

EPIC filed its first lawsuit against the project in federal court in 2010 after Caltrans found the project had no significant impact on the environment. A federal judge ordered Caltrans in 2012 to halt construction and revise its environmental assessment to address inaccuracies in its data and revise its analysis of potential redwood root damage.

Caltrans resubmitted its environmental assessment and updated the project to address the federal court order. EPIC challenged the revised documents in another federal lawsuit in July 2014 stating that Caltrans violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not addressing impacts to old growth redwoods, nearby waterways and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet and coho salmon.

The lawsuit was dropped after Caltrans agreed to rescind its approval of its federal environmental assessment of the project.

EPIC had filed another lawsuit against the project in the Humboldt County Superior Court in which Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruled in 2012 that Caltrans had not violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it found its project would have no significant environmental impacts. EPIC appealed the ruling, with the appellate court ruling in 2014 that Caltrans did not provide enough information on potential impacts to old growth redwood trees and mitigation measures to reduce the impacts.

The court ordered Caltrans to reevaluate its environmental impact report.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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