Caltrans, contractor agree to pay $50K to TRPA for Emerald Bay construction violations
Man who filed complaint says penalties don’t go far enough
Regulators have reached a settlement agreement with the state transportation department and its contractor over violations, some of which were captured on video and sparked public outrage, that occurred in 2018 near one of the most iconic parts of Lake Tahoe.
But the man who filed the complaint that led to the corrective action says it fails to go far enough.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board signed off on a settlement agreement with Caltrans and Stewart Engineering Inc., Wednesday over mistakes made during a road stabilization project on California Route 89 in Emerald Bay last May.
The controversy gained regional media attention due in part to a video showing construction workers watching a boulder tumble down the slope before smashing into a large tree.
As part of the settlement agreement, Caltrans and Stewart Engineering will pay a total of $50,000 for a series of violations, which they said were unintentional. Both parties were “very cooperative” during the process, according to TRPA.
Caltrans staff members say they have learned from the experience.
“This is a lesson learned for us,” said Jaret Montplaisir, Caltrans area construction engineer. “This was an extreme environment, so we’re going to use that for future projects and when we’re under an extreme condition like that again we’ll cooperate with the agencies and implement any engineering controls to prevent that from reoccurring.”
Roger Ellicock with Stewart Engineering hopes the agreement will help put the matter to bed.
“I’d like it to be put to rest.”
Video evidence of destruction
For Robert Casebeer, the outcome effectively sends a message that environmental destruction can be conducted in the Tahoe Basin with minimal repercussions.
“They’re basically opening up a free market to destroy all of Lake Tahoe,” he told the Tribune.
Casebeer is the former Stewart employee who shot the video — which Ellicock described as deceptive and Caltrans said lacked context — and filed the complaint with TRPA.
A Tahoe resident since the late ‘60s, the 54-year-old Casebeer said he blew the whistle on what was happening at the job site, despite making more money than he had at almost any other point in his life, out of love for the lake.
That love, he says, cost him his job and ultimately uprooted his life, forcing him to move away from Tahoe.
“I’m still trying to rebuild my life.”
The video Casebeer shot and ultimately shared via social media sparked public outrage.
It showed heavy machinery appearing to drop a boulder, which proceeded to tumble down the slope as construction workers watched, the Tribune previously reported. One worker shouted, “Go baby,” and another yelled, “(The boulder) took that (expletive) tree out.”
The video garnered 25,000 views within a week of it being posted on Facebook.
WARNING: Video contains profane language
Casebeer said the scene is a small example of activity that occurred over the course of days, which he said is evident by all the other debris found below the project area.
Project officials dispute Casebeer’s characterization, saying that the video failed to tell the complete story.
“It was deceptive, the way that video was portraying,” Ellicock said.
What the video did not show, he added, was the equipment trying to handle a boulder that was too large. The person operating the excavator attempted to maneuver the boulder, which was sitting atop a wall, down to the base of the wall as was done with other boulders that were too large for the equipment.
But the wall began to fail and the boulder tumbled off the wall and down the slope, which Ellicock said happened in other instances when they attempted to maneuver a boulder to the base of the wall.
“The video looked like it was a lot more devious than I think it was,” Ellicock said.
Nathan Alterton, a resident engineer with Caltrans, said the space at the project site limited the size of the equipment that could be used.
“We don’t see the context, the full context in that video,” Caltrans’ Montplaisir said, adding that it is not Caltrans’ construction practice “to lose material outside our job site.”
Both Casebeer and his attorney Jacqueline Mittelstadt disputed the claim that the video was “deceptive.”
“We just flatly reject their mischaracterization of what happened on the video,” Mittelstadt told the Tribune.
Caltrans hired Stewart to build a 192-foot retaining wall along the northbound lane of the highway just south of Inspiration Point — a $4.2 million project.
Permits were approved in fall of 2017 and work commenced in spring of 2018.
Casebeer filed the complaint with TRPA on May 21 and, according to TRPA, staff inspected the site that same day and found evidence of damage and violations of Caltrans’ permit.
The violations, as detailed in the settlement agreement, include damaging trees, failure to install and maintain best management practices, disposing of construction material without TRPA approval, and disposing of construction material into a stream environment zone.
Click here to read the settlement in another window
Steve Sweet, TRPA code compliance manager, said an arborist’s inspection found notable damage to approximately 21 trees, including the large sugar pine seen in Casebeer’s video, below the project site.
Boulders, asphalt and other construction debris were found in the stream environment zone directly below the project site.
In explaining the removal of the best management practices (BMPs), Alterton said changes to the construction plan moved work into the area where the BMPs — essentially a barrier intended to catch debris — were located.
While the challenges are understandable, Sweet said in these scenarios TRPA expects project officials to stop construction and meet with the agency to find a solution.
In addition to following that process going forward, Montplaisir said Caltrans is committed to increased monitoring and daily documentation for projects in the Tahoe Basin that extend beyond 30 days.
Under the negotiated settlement agreement, Caltrans and Stewart will pay at total of $50,000.
Of the $50,000, Stewart’s portion is still being negotiated with Caltrans, according to Steve Nelson, Caltrans District 3 public information officer.
While financial penalties in these instances are negotiated and vary, Sweet said the amount is consistent with other incidents involving similar violations.
TRPA considers multiple factors when negotiating a settlement, Sweet told the Tribune. These include past violations, the number of violations, whether the parties are cooperative and remediation efforts.
In this case Caltrans started restoration right away and was able to complete the work by winter 2018, according to Sweet. That work included the installation of erosion controls and planting new trees and shrubs. Caltrans also committed to further work through November 2021 if TRPA deems it necessary.
As the permit holder, Caltrans is ultimately liable. Montplaisir explained the bulk of the violations, as they relate to the overall fine, were related to BMPs, which Caltrans was responsible for.
“We feel that sum is commensurate with the activities or the conditions that were violated and we’re taking ownership of,” he said.
Montplaisir defended Stewart, saying: “Stewart has been a great contractor and they built us a great wall.”
Casebeer is currently pursuing protection and relief as a whistle-blower under California and Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws and regulations, according to Mittelstadt.
Other legal options, such as a wrongful termination lawsuit, remain on the table.
Casebeer said he was fired for raising the issue and was effectively blackballed, which prevented him from finding work and ultimately led to his relocating elsewhere.
Ellicock said Casebeer quit, but he declined to comment further citing ongoing whistle-blower issues.
“While it’s a great thing that the players are being held accountable, the person who made it all possible has suffered through this tragedy,” Mittelstadt said.
For his part, Casebeer thinks the corrective actions fail to go far enough.
“That number doesn’t add up,” he said. “And I don’t think they should be paying with taxpayer money — they should be in jail.”
Asked if he would have filed the complaint with TRPA knowing what he does now, Casebeer said: “I would; I would do it again.”
CORRECTION: This article originally stated Stewart Engineering would pay $7,500 of the $50,000. That information is incorrect. The two parties are still in negotiations to determine the amount.