UPDATE, 4:46 p.m.: Caltrans has issued a statement.
In response to today’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White ruling in favor of Caltrans in a lawsuit that challenged construction of a highway bypass project near Willits, California, Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty issued the following statement:
“Caltrans takes seriously its responsibility to preserve the species and habitats on these lands and we are pleased that the judge rejected this lawsuit. This project eliminates a chronic traffic bottleneck while enhancing fisheries and hundreds of acres of local wetlands.”
For the latest information about the environmental improvements and the Willits Bypass Project, please visit willitsbypass.wordpress.com.
Press release from the Environmental Protection Information Center:
SAN FRANCISCO— A federal judge ruled today that the California Department of Transportation’s environmental review and permits for the Willits Bypass were adequate and the agency can continue construction of a four-lane freeway around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. The disappointing ruling comes despite the fact that construction has destroyed and damaged sensitive wetlands, the headwaters of salmon-bearing streams, oak woodlands and endangered species habitats.
Earlier this year Caltrans began cutting mature oak forests and clearing riparian vegetation along critical salmon streams in Little Lake Valley, and began extensive draining and filling of wetlands, despite violations and improper issuance of federal and county quarry and fill permits.
“It’s disappointing that the court accepted Caltrans’ inadequate review and flawed rationale for the purpose and need of this project,” said Aruna Prabhala, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We disagree with the determination that the environmental impacts of the Willits Bypass project are not significant - Little Lake Valley is being devastated by the construction. Unfortunately this is just one of the irrational and expensive highway projects Caltrans is pushing throughout the state that will cause extensive environmental damage without solving traffic or safety concerns.”
“This is a painful lesson in how Caltrans operates with impunity to justify building unnecessary and oversized projects,” said Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center. “Caltrans made false claims to permitting agencies and the courts saying that only a four-lane freeway bypass, with two enormous interchanges, would solve the traffic congestion in Willits, when smaller alternatives would have done the job.”
“The irregularities of the review and permitting process for this massive project have undermined the legitimacy of the Willits Bypass project,” said Gary Graham Hughes of EPIC. “It is a disappointment that the court did not hold Caltrans accountable for playing fast and loose with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, two of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.”
Conservation groups sued Caltrans and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act in approving the bypass project. Caltrans refused to consider two-lane alternatives and new information about lower traffic volumes, and failed to conduct adequate environmental review for substantial design changes resulting in more severe environmental impacts. Local residents have protested the destruction, occupied the construction site, chained themselves to equipment and sat in trees to stop the project.
Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration are pursuing a bypass on Highway 101 around Willits, supposedly to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and have refused to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The project will construct a six-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges.
Although Caltrans documents show that traffic projected to use the bypass is not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway, the agency unilaterally discarded all non-freeway or two-lane alternatives. New information shows that Highway 101 traffic volumes through Willits are below what Caltrans projected when it determined a four-lane freeway was needed. Caltrans has used unrealistic traffic and growth projections in several projects around the state to justify large highway widening projects.
Bypass construction will harm wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including more than 80 acres of wetlands and more than 400 acres of farmland, and requires the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It will damage stream and riparian habitat for chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm the rare plant Baker’s meadowfoam, and destroy increasingly scarce oak woodlands.
A statewide coalition of conservation organizations is challenging irresponsible and damaging highway-widening projects around the state by Caltrans, and calling attention to the agency’s pervasive refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, lack of transparency, reliance on flawed data and disregard for public input. The Caltrans Watch coalition aims to put the brakes on Caltrans’ wasteful spending, institutionalized disregard of environmental regulations designed to protect natural resources, and pattern of refusal to address local concerns.
Frog in an organic medical marijuana garden (photo taken August 2010 by Kym Kemp)
Marijuana growers’ associations throughout the state are pushing back against the image of cannabis farmers as environmental nightmares and offering plans on how to protect the natural world. The Chair of the Emerald Growers Association, Kristin Nevedal—a Humboldt County resident, co-wrote a piece with Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association for the Sacramento Bee. The piece asserts that regulation of medical marijuana would protect the environment and assist law enforcement in expending their scarce resources on the worst environmental offenders.
The two put forward as a possible standard the Yuba County model which was worked out by both government and by growers including Bradley. They write
After several months of meetings, filing a lawsuit and finally going into arbitration, Yuba County and the growers association were able to craft a sensible ordinance that both sides could agree on. That year with a new cultivation ordinance in their arsenal and clipboards full of new rules and regulations, Yuba County deputies and code enforcement officers were able to go out and crack down on problem growers who had been creating public safety nightmares in neighborhoods. This would not have been possible if Yuba County had not come together with the stakeholders throughout the community to create a solution.
In addition, Saturday, Andrew Merkel who is the chair of the Board of Directors of the Western Plant Science Association which “represents the interests of qualified medical marijuana patients and collectives,” wrote another piece for the Bee.
The fact is that a very small percentage of marijuana growers are causing damage to the environment, almost exclusively the drug cartels that grow marijuana on our public lands and those who are simply in it to sell recreational marijuana on the black market…
He then pointed out research that shows cannabis can be effective in treating various medical conditions. He noted that in 2009 that the American Medical Association “stated that cannabis has medical benefits and requested that the federal government reclassify cannabis, to promote more scientific research.” (See here for more information.) Patients, he says, need access to clean medicine.
…most qualified patients and collectives don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.
Those with serious illnesses who use medical marijuana do so partly because it is natural, not chemical. Similarly, most medical marijuana growers are excellent stewards of the land upon which they grow and take great pride in caring for our environment and our natural resources in a responsible manner.
Kym Kemp / Tuesday, June 25, 2013 @ 10:57 a.m. / Environment
Time Magazine has a fascinating new graphic called Earth’s Most Stunning Transformations. This timelapse photo project allows the viewer to take satellite images from 1984 to 2012 of any specific area of the earth and ruffle through them like a pack of cards to see what changes have happened. Time suggests looking at areas like Japan’s erupting rock or Iraq’s vanishing marshes. Here’s more about how they did it.
LoCO readers might want to type in Humboldt County, CA, USA and then drag the map to their area to see what has happened in the last nearly three decades.
This is part three of the Lost Coast Outpost’s three-part series on the Willits Bypass. While every effort was made to ensure this story is unbiased (both sides had the opportunity to rebut the other side,) it should be noted that reporter Kym Kemp’s father and grandfather worked for Caltrans and she is married to a Caltrans project manager.
Today’s focus will be on the reason to put in the bypass. Gary Hughes of EPIC will rebut the agency’s position.
FOR: Point 1. The bypass will improve interregional traffic (Through traffic will move past the town without running into multiple stoplights, etc.)
The pros and cons on this issue are at the heart of the controversy over the bypass.
Caltrans’ main reason for building the Willits Bypass is to improve through traffic. Caltrans officials point out that Hwy 101 narrows as it approaches the intersection with Hwy 20. This, as well as local traffic, driveways, stoplights, etc., causes delays. The current average travel time through the project is 18.3 minutes, according to this document hosted by the Mendocino Council of Governments. The document says that projected times for the same trip without the bypass by 2028 is 32.3 minutes. However, the current project will allow the same trip to be made in 9.4 minutes. The agency believes this is a significant improvement for through traffic.
However, Gary Hughes of EPIC believes that Caltrans’ central goal is flawed. Speeding through an area in a shorter time is not a value he shares. He writes:
I think this gets to one of the fundamental issues of reform of the agency, and a reform of the concept of Level of Service. […] For Caltrans, destinations do not exist. It is only about how fast you can drive past a place, never about what it means to be there or arrive there. Willits is a destination, and is a part of our North Coast community. What is the justification for an unnecessary four-lane highway to bypass the town where we eat lunch, do shopping, go to the bank, get online to get work done, make phone calls, play in the park and give our kids a break from the trip?
There are two more major issues that Caltrans argues provides support for the desire to put in the bypass.
FOR:Point 2.The bypass will improve air quality in the valley.
According to Caltrans, one of the valued side effects of building the bypass is improving the air quality in the Little Lake Valley. The agency points out that
…diesel truck exhaust is known to have an effect on health, and diesel trucks produce even higher levels of emissions in stop and go traffic. Because children’s lungs are still developing, they are at a greater risk for developing health problems related to diesel exhaust than are adults.
The Mendocino Air Quality Management district supports the bypass because of air quality issues. Bob Scaglione, Senior Air Quality Specialist and Acting Air pollution Control Officer, wrote:
The Air District supports and encourages the Willits Bypass project, primarily because of the benefit of the significant reduction in air contaminants from idling vehicles and their impact on the local community.
Diesel particulate emissions have been identified by the Air Resources Board as a Toxic Air Contaminant, capable of increasing risks to human health. One of the factors of concern to the District is the affect [sic] of idling vehicles, especially heavy on-road trucks. The nature and constituents of diesel exhaust change during the idling process, producing greater levels of NOx, Particulate, and CO emissions at idle than an engine at full load. Research information at ARB’s web site indicate that particulate at idling is produced in greater quantities at much finer particle size per cylinder cycle than a normally operating engine. This allows for the particles to stay airborne longer and impact a larger portion of the surrounding community.
However, Gary Hughes of EPIC disagrees vehemently. He writes,
This is pure greenwash with no real factual basis. Caltrans has never done a real greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) study concerning this project. There is no body of data developed by the agency to back this claim up. Some folks from the Air Resources Control board made a statement to this effect, but they have NO STUDIES specific to Willits around this issue. This is an unfounded statement. It also ignores the thousands of dump truck loads that will be necessary for construction of this project—by some estimates, it could take decades of reduced traffic in Willits …. to compensate for the air quality impacts of the construction itself.
Furthermore Hughes believes that there won’t be much reduced traffic in Willits anyway. He once again argues that Caltrans’ fundamental picture of the world is off. He says,
Three+ years of construction with literally thousands of dumptruck loads of fill, not to mention the manufacturing of the concrete and other construction activities, these activities have real impacts on local and global air quality and emissions issues. We say again that this is another instance where Caltrans needs to do the math before making any statements about the supposed environmental benefits of this boondoggle project.
FOR:Point 3. The bypass is a model of environmentally sensitive construction.
Caltrans believes that the agency has done an outstanding job creating a project that is environmentally sensitive. Biologist Chris Collison says, “I’m quite proud of the work we’re doing for the salmon.” He says with satisfaction that the “wetlands are actually going to be improved.” Caltrans, he argues, is reducing invasive species, promoting the growth of native species, and helping sensitive species to survive in the area around the bypass.
“To offset impact,” he says, “we worked on ways to help species survive…. So that [this species] can’t wink out, [Caltrans] purchased from willing sellers eight acres of habitat [for the grass], which is a 25-to-1 mitigation. Forever, now, no one can use herbicide on that area. […] We now control how to use those lands for the health and well being of that species. Before we bought the land, people didn’t even know [the grasses] were there” Now he says the land around the bypass has a conservation easement.
Collison describes an attempt by the agency to protect the land around the bypass as if the area were a park. He says the agency is doing all this by “buying lands and controlling what is going on on them, like keeping cattle from depositing waste in streams”; restoring the natural gradients of streams so fish can access “miles” of former habitat; and providing a long term endowment of $5 million to “run the system” — management, policing, working with the ranchers, etc.
Hughes, however, has a simple response to the improvements Caltrans is claiming to be making. “This kind of habitat restoration can happen without building a giant freeway,” he says.
Hughes argues the fundamental basis for these kinds of projects are wrong. In fact, he argues, the whole agency has gone awry and is unable to grapple with the changing needs of our increasingly environmentally conscious society.
The whole picture includes the fact that there is a statewide coalition demanding reform of Caltrans. The real truth is that we do see the whole picture, from Hwy 197/199 to Lost Chance Grade to the Indianola Interchange to Richardson Grove to Willits and beyond, to the Bay Bridge even, we do see the whole picture including global environmental degradation, corruption and purposeful manipulation of the review process to reduce and eliminate public participation by an agency that refuses to innovate at a critical juncture in our existence.
It is time that the whole picture be taken into account. We demand a full legislative inquiry into Caltrans and the way they do business.
Follow the Willits Bypass Blog to get more from the Caltrans’ perspective.
Follow the Save the Little Lake Valley Blog to get more from the anti-Bypass perspective.
At its core, the bypass is proving to be a battleground for two fundamentally different views of life. One side urges slowing down, being smaller and using less. The other side urges innovation and invention to deal with the side effects of going faster and doing more in a modern world.
The first side, the anti-bypass side, sees this fight as a battle for the soul of the country and for the health of the earth.
The second side, the pro-bypass side, sees this project more as a single task that needs to be accomplished—a problem that they have worked extremely hard to solve. They feel they have gone to extraordinary lengths to be be environmentally sensitive and they seem somewhat bewildered that their efforts have failed to garner praise from the other side.
However, the aim of the anti-bypass activist is less to kill the bypass then it is to fundamentally change the nature of Caltrans — which, of course, would eventually mean not only the end of the bypass but all projects like it.
Kym Kemp / Tuesday, April 23, 2013 @ 6:39 p.m. / Environment
Photo taken at a 2012 release by Bird Ally X of a brown pelican that had been covered in fish oil. Photo provided by Bird Ally X from their Facebook page.
Pelicans covered in fish oil would seem to be in hog heaven but, instead, they could be close to death. Last year, Bird Ally X treated more than 250 birds which were covered in “fish slime.” The “slime,” according to Monte Merrick, co-director of Bird Ally X and the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, comes from waste from the fishing industry.
The birds get covered in the waste as they pick for scraps of food left by fishermen. The fish waste, especially fish oil, coats their feathers and compromises their ability to stay warm.
Merrick says that many of the birds treated were California brown pelicans. These pelicans have a normal body temperature of 103 to 106 degrees. The Pacific Ocean near the California North Coast averages around 52 degrees. Merrick explained that the birds’ feathers “…are their dry suit. If [the suit] gets wet or has a hole, it pretty much spells disaster. On a warm sunny day, [the birds] can get out and get dry. But once a pelican’s waterproofing is compromised, it is just a mater of time until they have a bad day.”
“There are more pelicans than there used to be thanks to the recovery,” explained Merrick. He said that there had been only a few thousand breeding pairs of the California brown pelican in 1971 in this state when they were first listed as endangered but by the time they were delisted in 2009, there were closer to 100,000 pair.
“There are a lot of pelicans now,” he acknowledged, “but…before 1850, there were probably a million breeding pair… .”
These birds, he says, learn to dive in any place where the ocean is calm but “all of those places have become more and more humanized—industrialized—in the last 100 years.”
Young pelicans are hatching right now in the Channel Islands and Baja. Soon they’ll be migrating north along the coast and Merrick is worried. “There are fish cleaning stations all along the coast—every place there is a fishing industry even a sport fishing industry.” The young birds, he says, are especially vulnerable to getting covered in the slime left at these stations. The inexperienced birds are no longer being fed by their parents and are supposed to “switch to plunge diving for their own food which takes practice.” Instead, some of them learn to linger around the fish cleaning stations looking for easy to find scraps of food. There, they get covered by the slime and can die.
The mortality for the young pelicans is high. “Half of all pelicans die in their first year,” explains Merrick but pelicans can live a long time. Some have been known to live over 40 years. But, with the fish waste problem, the brown pelicans and other birds are encountering problems up the coastline.
“Here in Eureka, we have a seafood plant right on the waterfront.” Pelicans go there and eat the waste. They risk getting covered in the fish slime and, according to Merrick, “the lifestyle leads to disease.”
However, Bird Ally X has been successful in saving many of the contaminated creatures. Merrick says, “Rescue has a really high rate of success.” Nonetheless, it would be better if the birds weren’t contaminated in the first place.
“A lot of the hazards are individually based,” explained Merrick. “Individuals can solve it. Last year we had a spectacular salmon season. [Fishermen] tossed the carcasses to the pelicans. They can’t eat it. Their throat isn’t built that way….Their bill and neck has not changed in 30 million years. [They’re supposed to eat] anchovies and sardines. They might try new things but that really isn’t going to work out for them. They need to do old things.”
People who fish, he suggests, could help by bringing the carcasses home to their gardens or using covered dumpsters. “Honoring that fish by turning it into tomatoes is the best choice,” he says.
Individual fishermen are not the biggest problem though. The fish cleaning stations in the harbors cause the most problems. In Crescent City, according to Merrick, there used to be a “rudimentary trough sink with a couple of dumpsters. Bird Ally X were called in frequently to deal with oil covered birds. “We put lids on the dumpsters which was pretty effective.” But the group still had to step in to help. “We rescued in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 pelicans.” This year though, Merrick says, “the harbor there applied for a grant to build a pelican friendly fish cleaning station.” Merrick is hopeful that this will continue to help the birds stay oil free.
Merrick says that a pelican friendly fish cleaning station “keeps the pelicans away from the action…It has to be enclosed so that you’re not cleaning your fish with the birds hanging around you.” In addition, a lot of the fish waste is ground up and piped back into the water. Pelicans and other birds congregate there for the easy pickings and get contaminated. Merrick believes that the “waste stream must be treated as sewage—not spewed back into the bay.”
Beyond that, he’d like to see the fish waste be composted. “We’ve been doing it now for over a year [at Bird Ally X] and it’s been successful…Fish waste should be composted at marinas. Harbor districts should make themselves a model and use it as a promotion of their industry.”
Even further, Merrick says, “Bird Ally X would like to build bridges to entrepreneurs. We’d like to connect the entrepreneurs with soil amendment companies with this resource that is being untapped.” The fish waste that is being dumped into the water could be used to make soil amendments, he says.
Merrick says, In 2012, “We treated 260 birds. We had to build an entire infrastructure to treat those birds. We didn’t have any funding. With an oil spill, the company responsible would have to pay.” But instead, his group had to fund raise to clean and feed the contaminated birds.
Merrick says that his group could possibly sue harbors that aren’t fixing the problem but that could take years for results and “… what we really need is for pelicans not to get killed this year.”