SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.— A federal court judge ruled Thursday that Caltrans must do a detailed environmental impact statement on the controversial Richardson Grove highway-widening project. The ruling, in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, follows a May decision that halted the Caltrans project.
“It’s taken almost a decade, but today we have won what we have long sought: a court order mandating that Caltrans do a real and meaningful environmental review,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “The ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park are now protected from bad science and bulldozers.”
U.S. District Judge William Alsup found that Caltrans violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take a “hard look” at the likely impacts from the proposed road-widening project to old-growth redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park. Thursday’s order imposes a substantial hurdle for Caltrans before construction can proceed.
“Caltrans may not see the value of these ancient redwoods, but thankfully the court does,” said Peter Galvin, director of programs of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This strong ruling should convince Caltrans to abandon this destructive project once and for all. Long live the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove.”
The highway-widening project could damage the roots of more than 100 of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, including trees up to 3,000 years old, 18 feet in diameter and 300 feet tall. Caltrans has pursued this project solely to incrementally improve passage for heavy, oversized commercial trucks, with trailers up to 53 feet long.
In his order Judge Alsup said: “After eight years of litigation, the Court is convinced and so finds that Caltrans has been bound and determined from the outset, regardless of the source, to arrive at a FONSI [(Finding of No Significant Impact)] and thus avoid the scrutiny of an EIS.”
The judge sent the project back to the agency with a specific order: “At long last, the Court now orders that Caltrans stop trying to skate by with an EA/FONSI and that Caltrans prepare a valid (environmental impact statement). Please do not try to systematically minimize the adverse environmental consequences and to cherry-pick the science.”
Plaintiffs include the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte and four private citizens: Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.
“I hope Caltrans will take a fresh look at this project,” said David Spreen. “Businesses, residents and politicians along the North Coast corridor have made it clear that the HWY 101 Last Chance Grade section is far more important and needs to be prioritized by Caltrans now. Times have changed. Let's move forward.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein LLP, Sharon Duggan, a staff attorney with EPIC and a long-time expert on environmental law, Philip Gregory of Gregory Law Group, and Camilo Artiga-Purcell of Artiga-Purcell Law Office.
Richardson Grove State Park, where tourists often first encounter large redwoods when heading north on Highway 101, is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world. The park has essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.
Caltrans first proposed the project in 2007, claiming the widening is needed to accommodate large-truck travel. Since the project was first approved, large trucks can now enter Humboldt County because of a highway widening project on Highway 299, a project that the plaintiffs in this case did not challenge.
Litigation against the Richardson Grove project has been successful in both state and federal court. In May Judge Alsup ruled that Caltrans failed to take a hard look at the impacts to old-growth redwoods under federal law. In June Judge Kelly Neel of Humboldt County Superior Court found that the agency had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by introducing significant new information without a public comment period.