Caltrans' Willits bypass faces more setbacks

KGO logo
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Caltrans' Willits bypass faces more setbacks
For the second time, crews working on a troubled Caltrans project have damaged or destroyed a Native American archaeological site.

WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) -- ABC 7 News has been investigating the Caltrans Willits Bypass for more than a year. The project is in Mendocino County, where Caltrans is building a bypass around the town of Willits.

ABC7 News has learned that earlier this month construction crews damaged a Native American archaeological site. It was just last Friday the federal government ordered work halted, because of environmental issues. Now we are learning more about what was behind the stop work order on the project.

Caltrans says crews are still allowed to work on a viaduct in the middle of the construction area, but much of the work on the six mile long project was ordered stopped immediately by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The construction will fill in more than 40 acres of federally protected wetlands and seriously impact twenty more acres.

The damage is so severe Caltrans is required to restore 50 acres of wetlands in other areas. And that's where the problem is.

The Corps did not respond to our requests for an interview, but the Corps notified Caltrans it is in "serious breach of (its) permit conditions."

The Corps says "Caltrans has failed to fulfill and/or adequately respond to... major concerns" about the environmental requirements.

The notice also asks for "financial assurances" that Caltrans has the money to do the work.

Caltrans has repeatedly claimed the environmental improvements, known as mitigation, will cost $54 million. But our analysis of recent documents submitted to the state water board shows a total of at least $75 million.

When we asked Caltrans for comment on the money, a spokesperson said he would "provide clarification later this week."

ABC7 News has also learned that for the second time, Caltrans has damaged a known Native American archaeological site.

It happened in an area near the freeway project, where Caltrans is supposed to be making environmental improvements.

A Caltrans email sent to the Coyote Band of Pomo Indians in the area called it "human error."

The tribe has been demanding more archaeological monitors on the project to protect Indian artifacts. There was no monitor present when the damage occurred.

Caltrans told us they would get back to us with an official statement on the Native American site, but we have not heard from them.

A spokesperson said earlier Caltrans would meet with the Army Corps of Engineers later this week to discuss the suspension of work at the site, and that Caltrans is committed to environmental protection.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney