Will Parrish: Bypass Stopped — For Now



When it comes to large, earth-destroying projects of the sort rapidly unraveling this planet’s life support systems, efforts by corporations and nation-states to “remediate,” “mitigate,” or “compensate” (the specific jargon depends on the specific project, agency, and part of the world) for their ecocide has become a macabre custom under modern environmental law.

For example, arguably the world’s most destructive industrial project, the Athabascan Tar Sands of Northern Alberta, features an extensive mitigation plan. The various tar sand oil producers, in conjunction with Canadian resource agencies, are required to invest in forest restoration and “carbon dioxide offset” projects to make up for polluting the earth’s atmosphere perhaps beyond redemption, and for desolating a stretch of northern Alberta’s forest and wetlands as large as Florida.

As the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers proclaims on its website, “Oil sands producers return the land to equivalent capability to achieve a sustainable landscape with forest productivity similar to its pre-development state.”

We are to believe, then, that the Canadian government and two of the world’s wealthiest men, the Koch Brothers, will work hand-in-hand to ensure no net environmental impact from the 142,000 square kilometers of boreal forest to which the Tar Sands producers seek to lay waste.

The most destructive project to occur in Mendocino County in recent years, CalTrans’ Willits Bypass, certainly has a smaller impact than the Tar Sands, though the logic underlying the project’s approval by regulatory agencies is much the same.

As I described in an AVA story last May, entitled “The Bypass Mitigation Charade,” the plan the California Department of Transportation developed in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to “mitigate” for the unique level of damage wrought by this unnecessary freeway, particularly upon wetlands, centers on excavating 266,000 cubic yards of soil in the name of “wetlands creation.”

Sure, some good may come out of the mitigation plan, but the plan as written ultimately amounts to only so much greenwashing. Naturally, the Army Corps’ approach to “mitigating” all the damage was shaped under political pressure from Rep. Mike Thompson (who “represented” the Northcoast until two years ago when the state was redistricted) among other CalTrans allies.

Big Orange, however, has failed to rise even to the modest standards the Army Corps kindly set out for them. For more than two years, CalTrans has made a mockery of the “final” Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (MMP) its staff submitted to the Army Corps’ officers in early-2012.

Last week, the Army Corps’ higher-ups finally ran out of patience. On June 20th, 2014, Army Corps Lt. Col. John K. Baker (Commander of the Corps’ San Francisco District) “conditionally” suspended the Willits Bypass construction permit.

“Due to the ongoing and serious nature of [Caltrans’] non-compliance, Corps Permit 1991-194740N is conditionally suspended,” Baker wrote. “No additional permitted work within waters of the US, including wetlands, may occur on the bypass construction until Caltrans complies with the permit conditions.”

The full permit suspension notice is available on the AVAwebsite. The AVA was the first news outlet to receive the order in its entirety and make it publicly available.

The Army Corps’ permit to Big Orange, granted under the 1972 US Clean Water Act, required that CalTrans kick off implementation of the MMP in early-2012. But CalTrans’ “mitigation construction” team really only limped onto the playing field in late-2013, early-2014, and is only now winding down its pre-game warm-ups, having installed some fences and purchased some seeds.

Moreover, because CalTrans is running way behind on the mitigation plan, its staffers are required to generate new projects to make up for the unmitigated damage the Bypass construction has already caused Little Lake Valley’s ecosystems (“temporal loss”). As part of a separate but related regulatory process, CalTrans submitted its proposal for the “temporal loss” mitigations to the Santa Rosa-based North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) earlier this month.

In a whopper even by CalTrans’ standards, Big Orange pitched the NCRWQCB on the idea that “establishing” 29.49 acres of new Little Lake Valley “wetlands” is a way of making up for being behind schedule on mitigation, when these so-called “wetlands establishment areas” were already required under the Jan. 2012 permit with the Army Corps.

The NCRWQCB and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) both said that was good enough for them last week. These agencies both signed off on CalTrans’ proposal to double-dip on wetlands establishment. At a public meeting last Thursday, the Regional Water Board’s figurehead board of directors demonstrated that they did not even realize in advance that staff executive officer Matthias St. John had approved this plan.

Granted, Water Board staff members have publicly stated their purpose vis-a-vis the Willits Bypass is “to help CalTrans succeed,” which necessarily means succeeding at trashing or filling in nearly 90 acres of important wetlands, although double-counting the mosquito ponds CalTrans is installing in various parts of Little Lake Valley as compensation for “temporal loss” is uniquely helpful, even by the Water Board’s standards.

For its part, the Army Corps is subject to slightly different political pressures than the Water Board. Being a division of the US military, it is characterized by a culture altogether less wishy-washy than that of the Water Board and one in which the word “orders” carries more weight than your ordinary civilian agency. (I furnish this observation as a staunch anti-imperialist and critic of the US military). Just as the Army Corps shocked CalTrans and its supporters by initially turning down the Bypass in 2010, the Corps’ leading officials and regulators for Northern California have now shown CalTrans how far is too far.

* * *

So, the Bypass is on hold.

The story broke on Friday, June 20th, when ABC’s San Francisco Bay Area affiliate, KGO-TV7, broadcast a storyreported on by the oft-heroic Jennifer Olney. According to numerous people who gather information about such matters, the suspension is unprecedented, marking the first-ever time the Army Corps has paused a North Coast construction project on Clean Water Act grounds.

Many aspects of the Willits Bypass are unique, one being that the project has met with a formidable environmental resistance, which has remained active and influential even in the face of countless devastating setbacks. This latest suspension is a huge, if temporary, victory for these environmental activists, as well as for First Nations people who have also been fighting the Bypass recently. This combination of individuals and organizations has played a demonstrable role in compelling the Army Corps to take its permit with CalTrans seriously.

Meanwhile, CalTrans has more or less picked a fight with local Indigenous people, having consciously damaged two known archeological sites and repeatedly failing to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act’s quite modest provisions concerning government-to-government consultations with local tribal councils.

In one of the biggest events in the Bypass resistance so far, the American Indian Movement is coming to town this Thursday, June 26th, the final stop on a statewide “spirit run” that visits prisoners, sacred sites, and threatened places.

Of course, CalTrans has already wrought far-reaching, probably irreparable damage to various parts of Little Lake Valley.

The Bypass crews have hacked down roughly 2,000 oak trees, including many that were over 300 years old.

They have cut down an exquisite alder grove along Haehl Creek.

They have laid waste to much of an Oregon ash grove of the sort that once grew in dense patches throughout Little Lake Valley.

They have already built part of the freeway viaduct.

They have dumped great mounds of soil across more than four miles of the valley.

They have “dewatered” Baechtel Creek so that salmon and trout cannot swim there, since the noise of piledriving shatters’ juvenile salmonids’ ear-drums.

They have denuded stretches along several creeks, causing pollution to run down into these waterways. The best documented example occurred at Upper Haehl Creek in February. Federally-protected fish species were spawning and living there. The Water Board recorded sediment levels at more than 20% higher than normal background levels for 11 straight days.

They have installed roughly 55,000 wick drains in the wetlands of north Little Lake Valley. The wick drains activate as a result of pressure from soil piled upon them. It is unknown if any of them have activated yet. But the process of installing them has been damaging in itself.

Many of the ecosystems the Bypass threatens can still be protected, however. Right as the suspension order came down, CalTrans was revving up to clear-cut roughly 12 acres on Oil Well Hill, which includes mature Douglas fir and storied madrones. Beneath this forest is the soil CalTrans plans to excavate to dump upon the Little Lake wetlands (the soil CalTrans prefers to haul, at the old Lousiana Pacific mill site, is off limits due to a lawsuit). So, Oil Well Hill has a reprieve for now.

In relative terms, CalTrans has barely begun the process of filling in wetlands. Big Orange would require an estimated 900,000 cubic yards to build the arbitrarily massive northern interchange its personnel have designed, as well as other wick drained areas that await more soil.

The Eel and Russian Rivers have also received a reprieve. Some of the gravel mines along these waterways are extracting rock at levels not seen for many years.

Outlet Creek has a reprieve. If the wick drains activate, turbid waters are likely to drain into the creek, damaging spawning grounds for fish. The watershed prefers moisture to seep slowly into the ground; the Bypass will increase the speed of its drainage, altering the hydrological patterns this area has evolved with.

With this suspension, there is now a political opening that could lead to protection of these still-vibrant ecosystems, as well as remediation of some of the damaged areas, and elimination of soil excavation in CalTrans’ existing mitigation plan with the Army Corps. One aspect of this plan could include doing away with the Bypass’ horribly ill-conceived northern interchange.

* * *

It is unclear how long the suspension will stand. In the letter to CalTrans, Lt. Col. Baker offered deadlines of July 15th for CalTrans to submit plans that would put it back onto a path toward compliance with the Clean Water Act permit. Meanwhile, officials from the Army Corps and CalTrans are meeting as this issue goes to press, on Tuesday, June 24th.

“After the completion of the meeting or hearing, I will take action to reinstate, modify, or revoke the permit,” Baker’s letter states.

In such matters, it is always wise to err on the side of assuming the regulatory agency will buckle. One thing working in Bypass opponents’ favor, however, is that the current Congressional representative for this district, Jared Huffman, is somewhat less friendly to the Bypass than was his predecessor, Mike Thompson. It is unlikely that Huffman will pressure the Corps to allow the project to resume in the way Thompson would have.

As I noted, the Army Corps initially turned down the Bypass in 2010, thereby casting CalTrans and its supporters into crisis. On September 11, 2010, Congressman Wine Guy wrote then-Army Corps Lt. Col. Torrey A. DiCiro a letter advocating that he “get to ‘yes’ on the Willits Bypass.”

“On the subject of the Willits Bypass, I want you to know that I appreciated you coming to my office on short notice to discuss with myself and Caltrans what the current and next steps are regarding USACE issuance of the 404 permit and approval of mitigation plans for the Bypass.

“I would like clarification on one concern. If the San Francisco Regional office has not previously done a mitigation of this size, are there other resources within the Corps that could be brought in to look at approaching this issue?

“As we move forward on this project, I am still encouraged by your predecessor’s interest in getting to ‘yes’ on the Willits Bypass. The upcoming meetings with your and other agencies is a good next step. Another step I am requesting is regular meetings between my office, yours, EPA, and Caltrans. Senator Boxer’s office would also like to be included…

“I hope you have been able to glean the enormity of the economic impact the Willits Bypass project will have on a rural community, which is home to one of the major transportation corridors in California.”

* * *

AIM Comes To Willits

When it comes to taking on CalTrans’ systemic destruction of ancestral sites in the course of building the Willits Bypass, the American Indian Movement (AIM) of California is rolling into Willits at exactly the right time. On Thursday, June 26th, roughly 50 AIM spirit runners will arrive at Evergreen Shopping Center at a little after noon, before commencing up Main St. By Saturday, some of them will have taken up residence adjacent to the Willits Bypass construction route, in full view of CalTrans’ massive destruction swath.

AIM members first led a ceremony near Willits on June 8th, which involved roughly 100 people. The event began as a rally across from the Bypass construction area, then culminated in a water ceremony in the wetlands. Now, Willits is going to be the final stop on AIM’s annual “500-Mile Spiritual Marathon,” a relay run that visits Indigenous prisoners, sacred sites, and threatened places.

The spirit runners set our from Pit River territory in northeastern California, near the town of Burney, on June 21st. A struggle over fishing rights in Pit River traditional territory was a precursor to, and catalyst for, better-known Indigenous land rights struggles such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 and the American Indian Movement’s stand-off with the federal government at Wounded Knee in 1973.

With this history as a backdrop, CalTrans has to be a bit concerned about the sort of opposition they have stirred up by failing to engage in respectful relationships with local tribal councils. AIM West now has the stated goal of putting CalTrans’ destruction of Little Lake Pomo ancestral sites on a “national stage,” as described by a letter put out this week by AIM West Spiritual Advisor Fred Short.

The timing is especially interesting given the latest bad news for Indigenous people whose cultural resources have been horribly impacted by CalTrans’ Willits Bypass. Big Orange’s construction crews have damaged another known archeological site.

As I first reported on the AVA’s web site this past Saturday, June 21st, the incident took place on June 12th. CalTrans Associate Environmental Planner Timothy Keefe, who is based in the agency’s Eureka office, revealed the incident in a phone call to Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians Historic Preservation Officer Eddie Knight, whose tribe has been closely involved in monitoring construction activities.

The damaged archeological deposit occurs in an area roughly 20 meters in diameter, on a parcel where CalTrans is carrying out “environmental mitigation” for the stated purpose of offsetting the freeway’s environmental destruction. CalTrans’ construction crews ran a ditchwitch across the site, so as to install a waterline (exact purpose unknown).

Even after Keefe and the construction crews realized they had just run machinery through a site they had previously identified as archeologically significant, but had not yet studied in any consequential fashion, they determined that work in the area should continue. In other words, rather than stop work and evaluate the damage, gather information from the archeological deposit that had been fractured by the fresh ground-disturbing, or even notify tribes to get their input on the situation, the construction team plunged ahead with installing a waterline in the trench.

Then, they backfilled it.

Keefe, the principal CalTrans archeologist on the project, gave the decision to fill in the site after running through it with a ditchwitch his blessing.

Tribal monitors were not present at the time, although the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians has been adamantly requesting that CalTrans hire two more such monitors to keep up with the huge scope of work taking place on both the Bypass construction route and, as in this case, on the Bypass mitigation lands.

The way this incident played out once again speaks volumes for CalTrans’ attitude toward working with Indigenous people, as with the agency’s desecration last year of a site called “CA-MEN-3571,” which has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

In that case, CalTrans’ surveyors identified the site during field work in 2011. At the time, CalTrans recognized that the site, which is likely associated with the historic Little Lake Pomo village of Yami, was smack-dab in the middle of the Bypass destruction swath.

By the time Bypass construction finally kicked off in March 2013, someone employed by Big Orange had decided that CA-MEN-3571 was not located in the Bypass route after all. CalTrans partially excavated the area, then installed roughly 1,500 wick drains and piled on three feet worth of fill soil there.

Representatives of the Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians and Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, and perhaps others, persistently questioned CalTrans representatives about this clerical decision. They wanted to make sure CA-MEN-3571 really was located outside the Bypass bootprint.

Lo and behold, CalTrans revealed in a blasé e-mail to Sherwood Valley Tribal Chairman Mike Fitzgerral in September 2013, CA-MEN-3571 was located in the Bypass bootprint all along. Only after creating a map of archeological sites impacted by the project, they claim, did they realize they were in error.

Yet, in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act, CalTrans was supposed to have completed the map of archeological sites prior to beginning construction. In fact, CalTrans failed to mention the overwhelming majority of Native archeological sites in its environmental impact review (EIR) documents. CalTrans’ 2006 EIR only mentions one Pomo archeological deposit.

In the case of the more recent incident, CalTrans contractor crews were not working not on the freeway route, but instead were carrying out so-called “mitigation construction” activities on some of the 2,100 acres CalTrans had purchased to “mitigate” for the damage to wetlands, oak trees, fisheries, and other legally protected natural resources. The particular unit of Big Orange’s Willits-area land empire where the damage took place is located near the intersection of Reynolds Highway and Heast Rd, on land Big Orange’s real estate arm purchased several years ago from the Frost family (Little Lake Valley ranchers).

According to the most recent information I’ve seen, this parcel is one of the areas where CalTrans plans to “create” wetlands by excavating soil from already-functioning wetlands – a so-called “Group 2” wetlands creation site.

The incident highlights the manifold problems with CalTrans’ mitigation plan, which relies on excavation of 266,000 cubic yards of soil for the purpose of “creating wetlands.” All of this soil excavation, which takes place across an area of land much larger and more far-flung than the Bypass, will invariably further harm to Indigenous people’s ancestral remains.

In April, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians passed a resolution calling on CalTrans to eliminate soil excavation as part of the Bypass mitigation, to eliminate the project’s arbitrarily massive northern interchange, and to provide compensation for damage already done.

The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo’s support is going to increase quite considerably on Thursday, June 26th. The AIM spirit run event is taking place under the banner “All Life Is Sacred; Caltrans’ Desecration Must Be Stopped”

(Contact Will Parrish at wparrish[at]riseup[dot]net.)