In a last-ditch effort to block construction of twin subway tunnels through the Santa Monica Mountains, Metro Rail opponents are planning to sue the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for allegedly failing to comply with U.S. and state environmental laws.
The effort in federal court will seek to bar an MTA contractor from digging south from Studio City to Hollywood next month while a judge decides whether the transportation agency has adequately studied the potential ecological effect of tunneling and blasting.
Currently, two tunnel boring machines are being assembled in an 80-foot shaft alongside the Hollywood Freeway for their cross-mountain voyage. Drilling is scheduled to begin by the end of April.
If the machines are idled by a court order while new environmental studies are conducted, MTA officials say it will cost the agency up to $250,000 a day.
In an unexpected twist, subway construction foes who have demonstrated at MTA headquarters for more than a year have splintered into two groups over how to conduct the lawsuit. Each plans to employ a different set of lawyers in separate suits over the same issues.
On one team is a well-heeled band of hillside homeowners organized last fall by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) under the name Stop the Subway Now. According to a Hayden aide, the group has hired veteran environmental attorneys Jan Chatten-Brown and Jan Greenberg Levine in an effort expected to cost at least $60,000 from the filing of the suit through one appeal.
The second group, organized by Hollywood activist Robert Nudelman and made up largely of Hollywood Boulevard merchants and their supporters, has retained attorney Lawrence Teeter. He is known as a tough litigator who has represented such figures as Sirhan Sirhan.
Both suits will focus on whether the MTA and its chief funding partner, the federal Department of Transportation, have fully complied with Section 4f of the National Transportation Department Act, as well as similar sections of the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act.
The key Section 4f statute prohibits the federal transportation department from approving projects requiring the use of parkland or historic sites unless there is no feasible alternative and engineers prepare a study detailing everything that can be done to minimize harm.
The MTA tunnels will burrow 200 to 800 feet under the full length of Runyon Canyon Park, a popular city-owned destination for hikers, dog walkers and mountain-bikers that is part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Most of the tunnels' large track-level equipment rooms and crossover passages will be blasted out with explosives under Runyon Canyon.
In a memo distributed to Hayden supporters, Chatten-Brown said she could make "strong arguments" that the MTA had violated the statute by not preparing a new environmental impact study after significantly increasing its estimate of the amount of water to be drained from fissures in the mountains.
In 1989, she noted, an MTA environmental report called for "limited dewatering." Last year, however, the MTA switched gears and requested permission from the state Regional Water Quality Control Board to drain and discharge into the Los Angeles River about 7 million gallons of water per day for two years.
The agency has since promised to try to cut that figure in half by shooting a cement-like grout into the rock in advance of its tunnel-boring machines; the expensive, time-consuming technique would dam the water up before it splashes into the tunnels.
Still, Chatten-Brown said in the memo that experts believe two perennial springs would dry up, eliminating a water source for wildlife. She also said ecologists believe the park's water table could drop by 50 feet over two years, killing native vegetation.
The MTA has vowed to head off those problems by stationing a couple of water trucks in the hillside park if needed to spray its chaparral and sustain wildlife.
What are the chances of the suits' success?
Gerald Schneiderman, who has filed a $1-billion suit against the MTA over the economic damage the agency has wreaked on Hollywood and North Hollywood businesses, scoffed at the chances of getting a temporary restraining order.
"Their probability of success is about 2%, and that's unfortunate because they have real concerns," he said. "It's going to be real tough to get a judge to shut down a federal project costing a quarter of a million dollars a day."
Renee Greif, a Mulholland Drive homeowner who has become a leader in Hayden's group, said she has pledged money to the suit more out of a passion for Runyon Canyon than to simply stop subway construction.
"I'm not going to let them plow through without knowing what they'll do to the environment," she said. "That park is too important to the city."