The following is the Sierra Club’s letter to Gov. Brown regarding High Speed Rail and his proposal to largely exempt it from the California Environmental Quality Act.
June 5, 2012
The Honorable Jerry Brown
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: CEQA Trailer and High-Speed Rail–Strongly Oppose
Dear Governor Brown:
Sierra Club California supported Proposition lA in 2008, which provided bond funding for highspeed rail in California. We continue to support high-speed rail as an important component in California’s transportation system. However, we strongly oppose your administration’s proposal to eliminate certain California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements for the currently proposed high-speed rail program.
Environmental review is essential to ensure that large public works projects do not significantly harm the environment and public health or run roughshod over communities. The multi-billion dollar high-speed rail program, including the rail to be constructed between Merced and Fresno with help from more than $2 billion in federal Recovery Act funds, is exactly the sort of largescale public works project that CEQA was designed to address.
We are acutely aware that the California project has been controversial. Some of this controversy has resulted from issues such as route choice, environmental impacts and community impacts. Some has also arisen from concerns about the High-Speed Rail Authority’s ability to effectively plan and manage a large-scale program, the program’s escalating costs, and the program’s financing and financial viability. Given the controversy surrounding this project, we regret that your administration would add to doubts about the project by suggesting that the project requires special treatment to meet its environmental review obligations.
In news accounts, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, has suggested that the proposed changes related to high-speed rail and environmental review are “pretty small, pretty technical.” Indeed, they are technical, but they are hardly small. The proposed changes remove a significant source of legal motivation for the authority to adequately review and mitigate environmental impacts anywhere along the rail line or on linking rail lines.
The proposed legislation:
1. Removes the court’s ability to prevent substantial environmental or community damage. The proposal prohibits a court from suspending or stopping project construction unless it finds that the value of the environmental or community damage would exceed the potential loss of more than $2 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) funding devoted to the project. This creates an impossible hurdle for valuing certain environmental impacts. What dollar value does one put on a population of endangered salamanders that could be destroyed by the rail’s route? Additionally, it removes a key motivation for the HighSpeed Rail Authority to produce reliable and accurate environmental documentation and to sufficiently and seriously consider ways to avoid or mitigate environmental damage. Without the threat of project suspension, even for a limited period, a judge has weak tools to force the state to protect the public’s interest and the public trust.
2. Discourages disclosure and mitigation of environmental impacts. The proposal essentially says that improper piecemealing shall not be considered improper piecemealing. This change can lead to isolated project reviews that will discourage appropriate and adequate disclosure and mitigation of the full extent of environmental impacts. [Editor's note: piecemealing is the practice of separately reviewing pieces of a project rather than reviewing the full project at once.]
3. Sets a dangerous precedent. Again, large-scale public works projects demand CEQA.
There is an inherent imbalance between state power and individual or community power that environmental review helps balance in the interest of protecting public and environmental health and community integrity. By removing a large-scale project such as high-speed rail from full CEQA coverage, the proposal grants the state a status that suggests it does not have to fully and seriously consider and mitigate environmental impacts. This proposal creates a dangerous precedent that, if applied here and to other large-scale public works projects, will throw the state back to an era when bulldozers and engineers trumped clean air, clean water, wetlands and natural habitat, and the public interest with abandon.
California needs a modem transportation system that gives travelers better options for moving across cities, across regions and across the state. But California also needs cleaner air, cleaner water, and protected open space and wildlife habitat. The California Environmental Quality Act is an essential tool to ensure that public agencies are mindful of these needs as they pursue public works projects. In the interest of the environment, and in the interest of rebuilding public support for rail in this state, we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to abandon the proposal to weaken environmental review for the high-speed rail system.
Cc: Ken Alex, Director of the Office of Planning and Research Dan Richard, Chairman, California High-Speed Rail Authority Members, California Legislature