In response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on Friday halting construction of a highway improvement project on U.S. highways 199 and 197 that was poised to break ground this summer.
The 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project would straighten and widen seven tight spots including replacing an aging, narrow bridge with an awkward approach over the Middle Fork Smith.
The plaintiffs, which include Gasquet resident Ted Souza, Friends of Del Norte, the Environmental Protection Information Center and the Center for Biological Diversity, argue that the highway project, designed to make the routes accessible for shipping trucks with no overall length limit, will cause irreparable harm to coho salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“I speak for the fish and nothing else,” said Souza, a fisherman who has lived in Gasquet since 1972 and has visited Del Norte County to fish with family since 1956.
Mike Sullivan, chairman of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission and the county supervisor who represents the area where the project is planned, said he was “frankly disgusted” that Souza and Friends of Del Norte pursued the injunction.
“The Friends of Del Norte have shown that they have no concerns for the people of this community or its future generations,” Sullivan said. “Everything they’ve always done has hindered economic development.”
Don Gillespie, president of the Friends of Del Norte, said that to the contrary, his group wants the county’s local leadership to embrace the recovery plan of regional coho salmon because that would bring the economic benefit of a revived commercial salmon industry.
“The coho recovery plan will have much more positive impact on the local economy than having STAA trucks on our highway,” said Gillespie, adding that major Del Norte retailers like Walmart and Home Depot said they did not need the STAA truck-ready highway when consulted during the project design.
“We used to have a viable commercial salmon industry in our harbor. It’s very feasible to have a commercial fishing industry in Del Norte County, but we have to shoot for it and keep it as a central focus,” he said.
Gillespie’s father worked as a commercial salmon fishermen out of Crescent City Harbor, and Gillespie would work with him during the summer to pay his way through college, with coho, also known as silver salmon, comprising a large part of their catch.
“Silver salmon was a mainstay. We used to catch a lot more silvers than we did kings,” Gillespie said.
Sullivan called that a “phony argument,” saying that the decline in salmon was caused by many more reasons than highway projects and that the Friends of Del Norte are solely concerned with their legacy as an environmental group — not the wellbeing of the community. He said the county might consider filing countersuits against the members of Friends of Del Norte.
“They are costing taxpayers millions by delaying this project,” Sullivan said.
Even if the plaintiffs lose, the project will be delayed until at least next construction season since a court hearing on the case is not scheduled until Nov. 19.
Judge cites inconsistencies
The nationally and state designated Wild and Scenic Smith River hosts a population of Souther Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In order for an agency to carry out any project that might affect an ESA-listed species, that agency (for example, Caltrans) must perform a consultation with the regulatory agency that manages that species, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). To determine the level of that consultation, Caltrans was required to draft a biological assessment determining whether or not the project may affect SONCC coho or its habitat.
In the opinion for the injunction, Northern District Court Judge James Donato cited “inconsistencies” in the biological assessments conducted by Caltrans, with some assessments recommending formal consultation with NMFS and other assessments recommending informal consultation.
“Despite these inconsistencies, NMFS purported to ‘concur’ that informal consultation was sufficient. The NMFS concurrence makes little sense in this context,” the opinion states. “Although the Court’s review is deferential, it cannot rubber-stamp a haphazard consultation process.”
A spokesman for NMFS said that because of the ongoing litigation, the agency declined to comment.
Caltrans for its part, issued a response to the injunction:
“This project is designed to allow access for industry standard-sized trucks on State Routes 197 and 199 while minimizing environmental impacts. The injunction is delaying needed safety enhancements and, unfortunately, will significantly increase costs to the public. Caltrans continues to be committed to providing sustainable transportation solutions while preserving California’s environmental resources.”
Fear of future impacts
In a 2008 letter to Caltrans, which is behind the project, Souza said that some Caltrans projects on Highway 199 completed in the 1960s continue to unload excess sediment into the Smith River, harming the river’s salmon and steelhead.
Caltrans response to Souza’s letter and others like it indicated that the agency does not expect this project to cause an increase in river sediment:
“Geotechnical staff do not anticipate an increase in landslides or rock fall due to the proposed project, based on knowledge of existing conditions and proposed engineering of the cut slopes and rock fall mitigation,” the Caltrans response states. “Potential geologic impacts were found to be less than significant and not substantially adverse.”
Souza also mentioned spills of oil by commercial shipping trucks that might increase if the roads are open to longer trucks.
In the past, Caltrans has responded that other STAA projects in the region, like one near Big Lagoon in Humboldt County, have not created an increase in traffic and have actually been shown to decrease accidents.
Sullivan also remarked that the need for the project is about safety and protecting the river since Highway 199 is already being used to transport industrial waste from the environmental cleanup of the closed Humboldt Bay (nuclear) Power Plant and the county’s trash.
The environmental groups have said in the past that they would support safety improvements to the highways, but they could not support the allowance of no-overall-length-limit STAA trucks. Currently trucks must be less than 65 feet in length to use the highway.