SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The state and federal governments violated environmental laws by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement for the Willits bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway in Mendocino County, environmentalists say in Federal Court.
The Center for Biological Diversity and others sued the Federal Highway Administration, the California Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Joining as plaintiffs are the Sierra Club, the Willits Environmental Center, and the Environmental Protection Information Center.
They claim the Willits bypass, bordering the rural community of 5,000 north of Ukiah, just west of Mendocino National Forest, would threaten wetlands, salmon-bearing streams and endangered plants, including Baker’s meadowfoam.
Caltrans pitched the bypass as a four-lane freeway in 1962. Joined by the Federal Highway Administration, the agencies “have insisted that the project must be a four-lane freeway and have refused to give detailed consideration to two-lane alternatives,” the plaintiffs say.
Caltrans conducted a supplemental environmental impact statement for the project in 2006. But, in the 5 years since, the agencies adopted a tiered construction plan in response to funding by the California Transportation Commission and the State Transportation Improvement Program, which allotted only enough money for a two-lane road.
Under the new plan, two lanes would be built with the available money in an initial phase, and two more lanes would be added as funding becomes available.
According to the complaint: “The 2006 EIS considered only variations of a four-lane freeway as reasonable alternatives, even though defendants’ current plans make clear that two-lane alternatives would be reasonable. In fact, defendants are now proceeding with funding for only a two-lane project rather than a four-lane freeway with no assurances of further funding from California. These and other changed circumstances and defendants’ inadequate analyses of the environmental impacts of the changes compel the preparation of a supplemental EIS prior to the construction of the project.”
The Army Corps of Engineers approved the agencies’ mitigation plan “despite its significant new and further environmental impacts,” and granted a permit for construction in 2011. The plan, however, failed to address traffic volume, habitat damage and greenhouse gas emissions, the plaintiffs claim.
“Defendants have violated the Clean Water Act by failing to evaluate two-lane alternatives in determining the LEDPA [Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative] for this project, analyzing and addressing only ‘Phase I’ of the four-lane project, and relying on and approving a mitigation plan that was inadequate in multiple respects. …
“[T]wo-lane alternatives previously proposed by the public are reasonable, could satisfy the goals of the project, and should have been considered by the agencies before and should be considered by the agencies in subsequent environmental review. Caltrans’ and FHWA’s refusal to fully consider these reasonable and viable alternatives to the project violates NEPA,” the complaint states.
The bypass is a proposed 6-mile addition to an expanded Highway 101, connecting San Diego to the Oregon border.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, ordering the defendants to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement considering two-lane alternatives and enjoining construction of the bypass.
They are represented by Adam Keats with the Center for Biological Diversity.