After encountering criticism from environmental groups, Gov. Jerry Brown signaled Wednesday that he plans to withdraw his controversial proposal to protect the California bullet train project from injunctions sought by environmental lawsuits.
Brown's staff told key environmental groups that he would no longer include modifications to the California Environmental Quality Act in a package of legislation this month asking for $6 billion to start construction of the high-speed rail project.
A spokesman for the governor declined to comment. State senators and their staffers confirmed the governor's move.
Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) said there wasn't "a lot of stomach" for Brown's proposal among his colleagues in the Legislature.
"I think that's wise," Simitian said. "It was a bridge too far. The obvious question is, is this a decision for the long term, or will the issue of environmental exceptions be revisited in the near future? That's a question people are going to ask."
Separately, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said Wednesday that Jeff Morales, the agency's new chief executive, will be paid $365,000 annually with a $25,000 bonus after the first and second years of his service. The salary is higher than any elected official in the state, but prison doctors and some others earn higher compensation. Morales' appointment on May 29 was questioned by critics in the Legislature and by outside watchdogs, because he came directly from the authority's top consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff. Morales' predecessor, Roelof van Ark, was paid a base salary of $375,000 and given a $75,000 recruitment incentive when he was hired, a rail authority spokeswoman said.
Brown's attempt to quiet the controversy over the environmental issues is coming just ahead of the critical decision by the Legislature on the $6 billion appropriation to start construction as early as this December. The matter will be decided in a bill that is expected to be brought up early next week.
The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council raised objections to Brown's proposal, saying it was part of a pattern to water down one of the most important pieces of environmental law in history. Critics of the bullet train, meanwhile, said it appeared that Brown wanted to protect his pet project, while leaving other businesses in the state to bear the full brunt of the law.
It appeared that the proposal was jeopardizing support for the rail project from the environmental movement, a stalwart supporter of high-speed rail along with labor unions and big engineering firms.
Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, had first raised the possibility of some legal protections from lawsuits in a Senate hearing, saying he would rather be able to respond to future lawsuits by mitigating problems than having his project stopped with an injunction.
Brown endorsed that idea soon after, sending proposed language to the Legislature that set a high bar for environmental suits and making the revisions retroactive to the start of this year. That measure could have affected the one suit that has already been filed by the farm bureaus of Merced and Madera counties, Madera County and others. The lawsuit contends that the environmental review of the project's segment from Merced to Fresno was inadequate.
Farmers up and down the Central Valley have said the project is destroying valuable farmland and will disrupt operations, destroy irrigation systems and puncture processing plants. In his first term in office three decades ago, Brown had his first battle with the agriculture industry, sustaining a painful political loss over a key water project. In addition to the farmers, the railroad industry has warned that the project is violating its property rights.
Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said the rail project was exactly the type of major construction that the environmental laws were intended to address. And she said there was little risk to the project that an injunction would stop construction.
Phillips said it would now be appropriate for the Sierra Club to support the appropriations for starting construction, since the group was a backer of the original bond proposal that was passed by voters in 2008. Even so, the project has a number of environmental obstacles to clear, including proving that it can mitigate the effect on air quality during construction in the Central Valley. She said the Sierra Club supports the idea of full mitigation, so that the use of diesel-powered construction equipment does not add to the already poor air quality in the eight counties regulated by the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District.