Caltrans requesting millions to “resolve” decades of improper drilling

Caltrans requesting millions to “resolve” decades of improper drilling

CalTransTwo years after admitting it defied state and local laws protecting against groundwater contamination for nearly a quarter century, Caltrans has yet to disclose how much it will cost to “resolve” the thousands of improperly-drilled and improperly-sealed exploratory wells throughout the state.

CalWatchdog has repeatedly tried to get Caltrans to provide an estimate of its three-phase “borehole mitigation” plan — from both a spokesman as well as through a public records request — but no such luck yet, even though the data should be made immediately available under the state’s sunshine law

CalWatchdog found one funding request online showing at least what Caltrans is requesting for the next fiscal year, around $6.6 million, which is nearly triple the amount Caltrans estimated in January. The funding request references a “five-year estimated plan,” but Caltrans has not provided that either.

One spokesman said an estimate would be available in Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget, which is scheduled to be released this week. 

Number of holes doubled

Caltrans told CalWatchdog earlier this year it lost around 10,000 holes statewide since 1990. The new funding request estimates the number around 20,000 holes. 

Caltrans said many holes won’t need to be sealed as part of negotiations with local agencies (mostly counties) and many more may be covered up by existing structures (roads). Caltrans won’t provide an estimate on what the target percentage is.

Caltrans estimates the cost to “resolve” one of these four-inch to six-inch holes that go as far as hundreds of feet into the ground is between $25,000 to $60,000 per hole. This figure includes the cost of implementing the new drilling policy, which now adheres to the law.

To date, Caltrans estimates it has spent around $3.6 million to “resolve” only a fraction of the holes — between 7 percent and 15 percent. Since 1990, Caltrans lost 523 holes in Sacramento County (Phase 1) and at least 5,737 holes statewide for “active and planned projects” (Phase 2).

Phase 3 will be the remaining 14,000 or so holes from completed projects between 1990 and 2014. 

Meanwhile, Sacramento County, which helped bring the issue to light, is threatening to fine Caltrans as much as $5.23 million per day for not obtaining permits, licenses and inspections — against state and local law — for 523 wells drilled from January 1990 to May 2014. However, the compliance date has passed without Sacramento County announcing its next step.

The state’s Water Code, and subsequent state and local laws, regulates drilling practices in or near groundwater to protect against contamination. Local agencies chased Caltrans employees around for years trying to get them to comply.

In June 2014, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty sent a memo to Brian Kelly, the secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, stating that Caltrans now agreed with Sacramento County and other local agencies about following local procedures.

Dougherty admitted to Kelly that the lack of documentation, combined with an “ill-defined business process means Caltrans cannot represent that we have adequately protected groundwater during our drilling operations as required” by state law.

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