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Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 4, 2011 Lumberjack Article

Caltrans STAA Juggernaut Stalls at Richardson Grove

by Emma Nation

The Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) announced on April 20 that Caltrans agreed not to bid the Richardson Grove Improvement Project or otherwise move forward on their plan to widen Richardson Grove before July 1.

EPIC and a coalition of environmental groups and individuals filed a lawsuit against Caltrans for violations of the California Environmental Quality Act in the California Superior Court in San Francisco in May 2010, and the case was transferred to Eureka in November 2010.

“We are intent in seeing that the merits of our case are heard before Caltrans attempts to implement the project, and this development is an important step in achieving that objective,” said EPIC executive director Gary Graham Hughes.

Hughes cited “environmental democracy” as one reason for the legal case, stating that Caltrans has “largely ignored” complaints about the project from citizens throughout the county and state. The legal challenge is based on procedural grounds because, Hughes says, “It is the precise and correct facilitation of the environmental review process that guarantees democracy.”

The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), passed by Congress in 1982 and implemented in California the following year, set the maximum limit for trucks on the national highway system. The largest rigs include sleeper cabs which, when coupled with the largest legal trailer, puts the overall length of the truck over the California legal limit going through Richardson Grove.

Caltrans terms their Richardson Grove STAA-access project as “a long-standing transportation priority” for Humboldt County.

California law allows maximum-length STAA moving vans and cattle transports through Richardson Grove, and these vehicles pass through the grove daily.

David Spreen of Kneeland has been following the issue since 2007. He points out that the largest STAA rigs are not the industry standard, but routinely referred to as “industry standard” to create an argument for imperative road widening through Richardson Grove and on all major routes into the region. He says the largest STAA trucks are not appropriate for Humboldt County.

“If we’re going to become a de facto part of the national highway system, what are the overall implications of that for the county? They’ll put a lot of wear and tear on the county roads once they’re off the highway,” he said.

Spreen says Caltrans asserts that the improved access for the big rigs will not result in more trucks, just fewer loads in larger trucks.

“To my knowledge, there has never been a project allowing larger trucks to travel through an area that resulted in no increase in truck traffic,” he says.

In a letter to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, Spreen asked the agency to consider the cumulative watershed impacts of road building the same way it reviews the cumulative impacts of timber harvesting.

Spreen cites a November 17 article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Peter Fimrite, reporting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned Caltrans that its storm runoff management is inadequate throughout the state.

Fimrite quoted EPA enforcement officer Greg Gholson: “At any given construction site the problems may not have required enforcement, but taken as a whole the agency was very concerned with the deficiencies that were seen.”

The Chronicle article said EPA documents revealed storm water discharges of metals, sediment, oil, grease, pesticides and trash from numerous Caltrans construction sites along California’s 50,000 miles of highway and freeway.

Spreen urged Water Board members to deny Caltrans a permit and send the matter back to Water Board staff to conduct a cumulative impact analysis to be completed by December 31, 2011, after Caltrans releases its upgraded storm water management plan.

Luis Rivera, executive at the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Caltrans' 401 water permit for the Richardson Grove project has been approved and sent to Sacramento for attorney review before it will be signed.

Although the agency is suing Caltrans for numerous 401 permit violations during the Confusion Hill Bypass Project (completed several years ago a few miles south of the Humboldt/Mendocino border), Rivera says the agency can’t deny a permit application based on Caltrans' past work performance because the water board has no power to effect reprisals for shoddy work. That matter would be up to the California Legislature, he said.

Answering concerns about excavating and severing old-growth redwood roots in the Richardson Grove plan, Caltrans says it won’t cut roots over two inches, and discounts environmental concerns that the work will harm the trees.

Caltrans states, however, that similar work on the Weott Four Bridges Project (in the planning phase) is “likely” to harm the old-growth redwood trees at that location.

The smallest, “hairy roots,” are the main water uptake organs for redwood trees.

Caltrans also states that it will work around the nesting season of the marbled murrelet in Richardson Grove, where potential nesting exists. However, the agency says in the Four Bridges project proposal that it can’t avoid working during marbled murrelet nesting season because it has to take advantage of the good weather.

Caltrans’ road widening project for Highway 199/197 may face similar problems to the Richardson Grove project, because the road through Jedediah Smith State Park also narrowly twists through old-growth forest.

The Middle of Buckhorn Project, a portion of Caltrans’ Highway 299’s proposed modification, has 17 curve improvements and is entirely earthwork—no bridges or major structures are in the plans—and could represent a major threat to the health of the Trinity River during construction and afterwards, as erosion often accompanies deforestation and mountain removal.

Chris Harvey, Caltrans District 2 Project Manager, calls the $11 million Middle of Buckhorn “a great project,” and says it’s funded by the agency’s safety program because of the accident history there.

Not everyone shares Harvey’s enthusiasm for the project, however.

Joseph Orozco, manager of tribal radio station KIDE-FM in Hoopa, and founder of the 7-Rivers Radio Network, says if Highway 299 and other roads were good enough to get the timber out of the region, they should be good enough for other exports. “If it wasn't for the roads, the logs wouldn't have gotten out of here,” he said.

Orozco says improving conditions for the big rigs would enable all traffic to go faster. He says Highway 96, which bisects Hoopa Valley, just off the 299, makes it difficult to develop the region's economy.

“People come in at a high speed and unconsciously go by at a high speed, making it unsafe for kids and others,” he said. “It's very easy to be in harm's way here.”

Orozco said fuel prices should be enough to discourage adopting transnational trucking as economic policy. “Keep the roads the way they are,” he advised. “They’ve been serving us for years. Keep commerce within your geographic area.”

In 2009 the Humboldt County Planning Commission disbursed grant money from the Headwaters Fund, which it oversees, to the Office of Economic Development to promote the Caltrans Richardson Grove Project to the public. The OED reportedly spent some of this money contracting a public relations firm to help prominent locals, including Caltrans executive Charles Fielder, write and edit six “My Word” columns in the Eureka Times-Standard, all promoting the Richardson Grove STAA project.
The OED supervises a branding scheme called Humboldt Made, and reportedly used some of the Headwaters grant money to produce a series of commercial videos featuring local products from the county's largest local exporters, including Sun Valley Floral, Lost Coast Brewery, and Cypress Grove Cheese.

These companies complain about the current cost of trucking their products out of the area, but critics of the STAA-access project say there is little evidence that their cost savings from using STAA trucks would translate into more jobs in the county.

Cypress Grove was bought last August by Emmi Holding Company, a Swiss conglomerate.

There have been 20 arrests for civil disobedience at recent demonstrations at Caltrans and before the Board of Supervisors.

Some say Humboldt County should develop sea and rail commercial routes because increased truck traffic sacrifices programs of economic sustainability and compromises the health of the region’s remaining natural resources.

Others say Humboldt County’s slow pace, quality of life, and natural beauty is what attracts tourists, some of whom see old growth redwood trees for the first time driving north on Highway 101 through Richardson Grove.

Wed, 2011-05-04


  1. If comments really were free, as in speech, then you would use a blog that allowed anonymous posts! Oh, wait, I just did!!!

  2. With freedom comes responsibilty. With liberty comes participation ;)


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