Environmental groups filed for a preliminary injunction in federal court Wednesday in an attempt to block a road-widening and straightening project planned to break ground this summer on U.S. highways 199 and 197, which run along the Smith River.
The lawsuit, filed by Friends of Del Norte, the Environmental Protection Information Center, and the Center for Biological Diversity, claims that the highway project “will likely cause irreparable, ongoing, and permanent harm to Southern Oregon-Northern California Coast” coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“Given the importance of the Smith River’s population to the species as whole and the population’s extremely perilous condition, this harm would likely be felt as at a species-wide level,” the lawsuit states.
The Caltrans 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project would straighten and widen seven tight spots (including replacing a narrow bridge with an awkward approach) on U.S. h
ighways 199 and 197, which both run adjacent to the Smith River, in order to open the routes to shipping trucks with no overall length limit. Currently trucks using those routes cannot be longer than 65 feet.
The same environmental groups have pending lawsuits in state and federal court challenging the highway project on the grounds that Caltrans inadequately studied the environmental impacts of the project.
In the past, the environmental groups have admitted that the highways could use the repairs, but they take issue with allowing longer trucks on dangerous roads that run adjacent to California’s only major undammed river.
They believe the project will lead to more 18-wheeler truck traffic and ultimately more spills into the Wild and Scenic Smith River, which already sees a fair share of big-rig spills.
Two separate 18-wheeler shipping trucks wrecked on Highway 197 in the past three weeks alone, both causing minor diesel spills.
Caltrans and local project supporters, like the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission, say that without the STAA large-truck access, there would be no funding for the project.
Supporters also say that concessions have already been made to protect natural qualities of the Smith River canyon, and with unwavering and unanimous support from Del Norte local government agencies, the hands of Caltrans are tied.
Caltrans has already completed vegetation removal for two of the seven project sites, and the agency has said that ground disturbance at the Patrick Creek area, which has a construction cost of $15.2 million, could begin as early as spring 2014.