Suit filed over 199/197 plan

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate May 17, 2013 04:21 pm

A lawsuit filed by conservation groups Tuesday seeks to stop a Caltrans widening and straightening project in Del Norte County on routes 199 and 197 due to concerns about its effect on the Smith River Canyon.

The lawsuit claims that Caltrans did not fulfill its environmental analysis requirements under state law for the 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project. It would open the routes to longer and wider trucks, which the groups claim would lead to environmental degradation of the Smith River basin.

The lawsuit cites impacts to old-growth redwoods, protected salmon habitat and the drinking water source for most of Del Norte County that could come from more potential spills and accidents with larger trucks. The suit says that the environmental analysis failed to legally and adequately address these and other concerns under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The suit was filed jointly by the local group Friends of Del Norte, the Arcata-based  Environmental Protection Information Center and  the national Center for Biological Diversity.

“For more than five years our organization has been identifying water quality and safety issues with this ill-conceived project,” said Don Gillespie, president of  Friends of Del Norte, in a press release, “but our comments have fallen on deaf ears. It is really a sign of Caltrans’ intransigence that public interest organizations have to resort to the courts to protect motorist safety and our treasured Smith River.”

A Caltrans spokesman said Wednesday the agency had not yet received an official copy of the lawsuit and that Caltrans policy is to not comment on pending legislation.

Representatives of Friends of Del Norte and EPIC both pointed to Caltrans’ lack of traffic analysis for the cumulative effects of opening up 199/197 to longer trucks in conjunction with projects on Route 299 and Richardson Grove on Route 101 in southern Humboldt County, creating a new network for bigger trucks.

“This project is clearly a sister project to Richardson’s Grove (101) and Buckhorn Summit (299),” said Gary Hughes of EPIC.

In the final environmental document, Caltrans said that “the increase in cargo hauling by heavy trucks would be relatively minor” based on a survey of trucking firms in which two-thirds responded that they would not change their shipping routes as a result of STAA access at Richardson Grove and on 199/197.

Although  no old-growth redwoods would be cut down, the conservation groups believe that increased traffic will have indirect negative impacts on the ancient trees.

Hughes said that EPIC strategically made a choice to not intervene for the STAA project on Route 299 “out of respect for business interest on the North Coast” that asked for that project, but said that business interest wasn’t the same in Del Norte.

Friends of Del Norte representatives have pointed to early business-interest studies showing that only two Del Norte businesses stated a need for bigger truck access: a lily bulb operation that only ships two months out of the year and Hambro, which has significantly reduced its operations since.

“There’s a highly marginal chance that this will even bolster our economy,” Friends’ president Gillespie said. 

But Tamera Leighton, executive director of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission, said that her commission and Del Norte county supervisors have always supported the project with unanimous consensus, unlike the other regional STAA projects. “We have broad-based support in a way that’s different from other communities with divided support,” Leighton said.

The lawsuit also addresses potential extra traffic detoured from Interstate 5: “the Project will develop an alternative route for STAA trucks to avoid Interstate 5, particularly during the winter months when Interstate 5 at the Siskiyou Summit (the highest point on Interstate 5) is closed due to weather conditions.”

Caltrans’ official response to the potential of 18-wheelers using 199 and 197 as part of a “frost free coastal route” is that the trip adds too much extra time and mileage to be a preferred alternative, especially when less windy coast-to-interstate routes exist like Oregon Route 126. 

“The largest road construction agency on the planet is blowing right past community concerns and community sensitivity to the environment,” Hughes said. 

“The bigger picture is to really draw attention to the agency in Sacramento and DC and get decision-makers to step up and literally reign in Caltrans.”

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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that old-growth redwoods would be felled for the Richardson Grove project.