TRANSDEF Files STB Challenge

In the second of two lawsuits filed today, TRANSDEF joined a coalition of non-profits and Central Valley county governments to challenge the decision of the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) preempting the application of CEQA to California’s HSR project. In what we consider to be a shocking use of state power, the California Attorney General has previously sought to eliminate the application of CEQA to the state’s HSR project.

On October 9, 2014 the CHSRA
petitioned the STB to block California courts from issuing injunctions that could stop construction of the HSR project. In an ugly turn of events, the STB issued a ruling on December 12, 2014 that blocked not only injunctions but all application of CEQA to the HSR project.

Our press release:

Lawsuit Challenges Federal Ruling: CA Environmental Law
Doesn't Apply to CA High-Speed Rail Project

Oakland, California – Two county governments and five non-profits jointly filed a lawsuit today challenging a federal agency's ruling eliminating California’s ability to environmentally review its own High-Speed Rail project. These Bay Area and Central Valley organizations had previously filed California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuits challenging the adequacy of CEQA review of California High-Speed Rail Authority projects in their respective regions.

Two Central Valley counties--Kings and Kern; two Bay Area non-profits--the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF) and the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail (CC-HSR); two Central Valley non-profits--the Kings County Farm Bureau and the Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability (CCHSRA); and the California Rail Foundation filed suit in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.

They seek to overturn a recent decision of the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) that prevents California from applying CEQA, the state’s premier environmental law, to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. On December 12, 2014 the STB ruled 2 to 1 that federal law took precedence over state law in approving the Fresno to Bakersfield segment of the proposed state-run high-speed rail system.

Jim Janz, President of CC-HSR, objected to the decision exempting HSR from having to do CEQA environmental review. “That’s pretty outrageous,” Janz said. “If there is one thing we know, it’s that fully and properly studying impacts and alternatives will produce better results."

Aaron Fukuda said "CCHSRA is outraged at the assertion of federal authority over a state project, removing local protections."

David Schonbrunn of TRANSDEF added "This is about whether California gets to protect its own environment for its own rail system."

The petitioners believe that California’s Legislature fully intended CEQA to apply to its own high-speed rail project, as evidenced in Proposition 1A, the High-Speed Rail bond measure, which assured the public that CEQA review and compliance were integral parts of the project.

The Authority requested the STB ruling to prevent the state court currently handling CEQA lawsuits from issuing orders that might delay construction. The Authority's ploy to sidestep CEQA represents yet another attempt to evade the requirements set by the Legislature and the voters.

CEQA, California’s premier environmental protection law, is a powerful tool forcing California public agencies to study and disclose to the public the environmental effects of proposed projects. It gives California citizens the opportunity to learn about projects that impact the quality of their lives and communities, provide comments and get formal responses before they are approved.

The petitioners have invested substantial time and effort in ensuring that the Authority performs appropriate CEQA analysis and adopts mitigation measures or alternatives to reduce potential detrimental impacts of the high-speed rail project. Ignoring CEQA risks allowing the Authority and their contractors to inflict significant harm to lands and communities along its rail lines.

This was recently highlighted when Tutor-Perini, contractor for the first HSR construction package, graded approximately 9 acres that were not within the environmentally cleared project footprint and destroyed a den for San Joaquin Kit Fox, a protected species under both state and federal law. This violated the requirements of the Merced to Fresno Final Environmental Impact Report and federal environmental measures designed to protect endangered species and their habitat.