Environmental objections in path of bullet train

The California bullet train is promoted as an important environmental investment for the future, but over the next decade the heavy construction project would potentially harm air quality, aquatic life and endangered species across the Central Valley.

Eleven endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, would be affected, according to federal biologists. Massive emissions from diesel-powered heavy equipment could foul the already filthy air. Dozens of rivers, canals and wetlands fed from the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada would be crossed, creating other knotty issues.

A wide array of state and federal agencies is examining those effects and, over the next several months, will issue scientific findings that could affect the cost and schedule of construction. Beyond the regulators, environmental lawsuits brought by the powerful California agriculture industry are threatening to further delay work.

The state rail authority is trying to push ahead with an urgent plan to start construction of a 130-mile segment from Madera to Bakersfield as early as December, arguing that any delays could put more than $2 billion of federal funding at risk. Even if the Legislature appropriates the state’s share of money this summer, the construction schedule will depend on friendly and quick decisions by often tough regulators.

“We make an independent decision here,” said Paul Maniccia, a biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers. “We don’t willy-nilly say that’s OK.”

The $68-billion bullet train would be the largest infrastructure project in the nation, projected to carry at least 20 million passengers annually with clean electrical power. If it draws motorists off the highway, it would reduce vehicle emissions. But those long-term benefits have to be weighed against heavy immediate effects.

Among the most difficult issues will be air quality, which is regulated across eight counties by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The district worries that the construction project would exacerbate already problematic levels of nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile compounds.

The district already bears an annual $29-million federal fine for violating the Clean Air Act, a burden levied on businesses and motorists, who must pay higher annual vehicle fees. Without its approval, the California High-Speed Rail Authority cannot sink a shovel into the ground, said Samir Sheikh, the district’s director of strategies and incentives.

“We have an air quality problem that cannot tolerate an increase in emissions,” he said.

In the Fresno Unified School District, 10,045 students — 1 out of every 7 — have been diagnosed with asthma, according to data provided by the school district. Many experts believe poor air quality acts as a trigger.

Children in the valley carry inhalers with their books and lunches. On bad air days, emergency rooms see a significant increase in residents having asthma attacks, according to district figures. Hospitalizations, lost work days and premature deaths, among other effects, cost $5.7 billion annually, a 2008 Cal State Fullerton study found.

The district is taking the position that the rail construction should make no net increase in emissions. If the cleanest diesel equipment still adds to emissions, then the district wants “financial mitigation” so it can reduce pollution from other sources, Sheikh said. Even the increased population that the rail project would generate would need to be mitigated, he said.

A potential hold up is that the district wants to know the exact quantity of emissions that the construction project would create. Up to 50 miles of elevated structures or viaducts just from Merced to Bakersfield would be built, hundreds of millions of pounds of gravel would be hauled from quarries, and thousands of towers would be erected to hold up electrical lines — much of it done with diesel-powered equipment.

“There will be a lot of heavy equipment producing a lot of emissions over a number of years,” Sheikh said.

The rail authority has downplayed such concerns. It has vowed in many forums to work closely with regulatory agencies, protect the public health and comply with all environmental laws.

“We do not expect any significant adverse impacts onchildren’s healthto occur as a result of construction,” Karin Lilienbecker, an environmental consultant with CH2M Hill, told the rail authority board at a public hearing in early May.

Such positions are not winning the authority a warm political welcome by the air district’s governing board, whose 15 members include 11 registered Republicans from around the Central Valley.

“These high-speed rail people just blow through everything,” said Harold Hanson, a board member and Bakersfield city councilman. “I am not sure they know how much dust and pollution they will cause. Their environmental homework has been shoddy.”

Although the rail authority gets support from national environmental groups who say rail could reduce global warming in future decades, local activists say their immediate health concerns are discounted.

“What about the people who will live next to this temporary activity for the next five years?” said Sandra Celedon-Castro of Fresno, a member of the environmental justice advisory board to the air district. “Once your health is affected, how are you going to fix that? Once you have asthma, that is not temporary. We have always been overlooked.”

The rail authority and its partners at the Federal Railroad Administration also need clearance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is preparing a biological opinion on the project’s effects on endangered and threatened species, said Daniel Russell, a deputy assistant field supervisor at the service.

So far, the service has identified six animal and five plant species listed as endangered or threatened that would be affected by the Merced-to-Fresno section of the rail project. It has yet to determine whether the project would harm those species or could jeopardize their survival or have effects that could be mitigated, Russell said.

The animals include the San Joaquin kit fox, the California tiger salamander, two types of fairy shrimp, a tadpole shrimp and the valley elderberry longhorn beetle.

Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California, said a lot of public and private money has been invested into preserving those species.

“The kit fox is pretty charismatic,” she said.

By choosing to go up the eastern side of the Central Valley rather than the drier western side, the rail authority will cross up to 100 bodies of water controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We anticipate there to be unavoidable impacts, given the sheer magnitude of the project,” said Susan Meyer, a senior project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers. The law requires that any impacts be avoided or minimized. The Army could require “compensatory mitigation” under its permits, Meyer said.

The Army’s work is done at an almost microscopic level, examining sediment transport, chemical processes and the effect of every bridge pier.

“You live in a home,” said Maniccia, the Army biologist. “How would you feel if somebody put a big structure over it?”