OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The United States can’t dodge claims over the destruction of sacred sites, artifacts and wetlands allegedly caused by a $355 million highway project in Northern California, a federal judge ruled.
Two Native American tribes sued the U.S. Department of Transportation and its state counterpart, Caltrans, in October 2015, claiming the agencies failed to consult them before starting work on the controversial Willits Bypass.
The project, completed in November 2016, rerouted 6 miles of Highway 101 around the notoriously congested town center of Willits in Mendocino County. The four-lane bypass became a target for environmental protests when construction began in the spring of 2013.
The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and Round Valley Indian Tribes say the government refused to stop bulldozers when historic artifacts were found or properly review archeological finds uncovered during construction.
U.S. District Judge Jeffery White dismissed the tribes’ lawsuit with leave to amend in August 2016, finding only Caltrans, and not the federal government, was liable for violating environmental laws under a 2007 agreement.
But White reached a different conclusion in his March 10 ruling. He found the federal government could be liable for failing to retake control of the project on Feb. 18, 2015. That is the date the tribes asked the federal government to resolve alleged violations of environmental and historical preservation laws, which they say Caltrans failed to address.
A 2007 memorandum of understanding between the U.S. government and Caltrans states that the Federal Highway Administration shall reassume responsibilities for the project if the federal government or a registered Indian tribe finds Caltrans has failed to satisfactorily resolve an environmental concern.
Because no request to reassume control was made before a February 2015 meeting, White found the tribes may pursue claims against the federal government based on its alleged inaction starting on Feb. 18, 2015.
The judge also refused to dismiss claims that the federal government failed to engage in consultation with the tribes to protect their ancestral lands and artifacts, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.
Traffic surveys conducted after the bypass was completed in November showed a 25 to 30 percent reduction in congestion, according to Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr.
Frisbie said ongoing environmental mitigation includes planting nearly 800,000 shrubs and trees; removing invasive, non-native plants; improvements to fish passage at Ryan Creek; restoration of riparian areas and stream banks damaged by cattle grazing; and new fencing to ensure grazing will no longer affect sensitive wetlands.
To address concerns raised by the tribes, Frisbie said, the state will post interpretive signs at Pomo cultural sites, fund a Pomo exhibit at the Mendocino County Museum, and help create materials for the tribes to educate youth about their history and culture.
But plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Gregory said “putting up a sign” utterly falls short of meeting Caltrans’ obligation to the tribes.
“Caltrans continues to hold onto sacred relics that it found rather than turn them over to the tribes, even though Caltrans acknowledges that these relics are tribal relics,” Gregory said. “Further, Caltrans continues to bulldoze first, look for historic properties later.”
Gregory said his clients want to sit down with the federal government to make progress on these “fundamental points,” which it has been unable to resolve with Caltrans.
He said the tribes want their sacred sites protected from the destructive construction and mitigation work, and for the federal government to allow the tribes access to those sacred sites for religious ceremonies and historic activities.
Gregory said the tribes will file a second amended complaint seeking a court order requiring the Federal Highway Administration to reassume responsibility for the project and sit down in consultation with the tribes.
The U.S. Department of Transportation did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday morning.