Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Center for Biological Diversity Challenges CalTrans Over Willits Bypass

By Nate Seltenrich
Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Jeff Miller and CalTrans just can't seem to get along. In recent years, the East Bay environmentalist has won significant court rulings blocking CalTrans projects in Sunol (through his group Alameda Creek Alliance) and Humboldt County (through the Tuscon-based Center for Biological Diversity, with whom he also works).

Here's another battleground to add to the list: CalTrans' proposed Willits Bypass in Mendocino County. Building a six-mile, four-lane section of Highway 101 around the town of Willits would have significant environmental impacts, Miller says. On Friday, CBD filed a preliminary injunction in federal court to stop it from happening.

“The Willits Bypass would be a disaster for local wetlands, oak forests, and the wildlife that depend on them,” Miller said in a prepared statement for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans has made significant changes to this project without fully evaluating the impacts of bulldozing a freeway through precious wetlands and endangered species’ habitats.”

In August, CBD filed a lawsuit against CalTrans in federal court alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit, which is still pending, seeks a court order requiring CalTrans to prepare a supplement to its original 2006 environmental impact statement before proceeding with construction. The agency has already awarded a construction contract that could result in impacts to oak forests and riparian vegetation as early as October.

Spokesman Phil Frisbie, Jr., said that the agency will file a response to the injunction by the end of the month. “We are still thoroughly reviewing the injunction that was filed with the court, but after an initial review, we do see areas that we disagree with the way impacts are represented," he said. For example, CalTrans believes that CBD's representation of impacts to oak trees are overstated, he said. “It was not considered to be a significant impact. The new highway does not pass through any dense forested areas. ... We do stand behind our 2006 EIR, and all the reevaluations we did," he said.

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