Caltran’s controversial “Richardson Grove Project” suffered another setback Thursday, as Judge William Alsup of the Northern District Court of California ruled that the agency was obligated to do a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) instead of the more circumscribed environmental review it had previously conducted. Plaintiffs include the Environmental Protection Information Center, 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.
Judge Alsup’s order follows his previous decision from May 2019, which threw out Caltrans most recent Environmental Assessment (“EA”), finding that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to take a “hard look” at the likely impacts of the proposed road widening to old-growth redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park. Thursday’s ruling goes substantially further than Judge Alsup’s ruling in 2012 regarding a previous EA, imposing a substantial hurdle for Caltrans, under both NEPA and §4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, before construction can proceed.
“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 (EPIC). “The ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park are now protected from bad science and bulldozers.”
In his forceful order, Judge Alsup found, “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….Caltrans never gave the fair “hard look” required by NEPA but resorted to cherry picking the science to arrive at a preordained conclusion.” Judge Alsup 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 EIS. Please do not try to systematically minimize the adverse environmental consequences and to cherry-pick the science.”
Now, as a result of this order, Caltrans is obligated to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement and receive public comment on their analysis.