Squaw settles lawsuit over water-quality
August 23, 2005
TRUCKEE – Squaw Valley Ski Corporation and the state of California have reached a deal in a 3-year-old lawsuit over water quality at the ski area, in which the resort will pay $900,000 in fines.
The 26-page lawsuit, filed in 2002, lists nine separate construction projects at the ski resort that allegedly violated federal, state or local environmental laws.
The state alleged that Squaw built ski lifts and ski trails without the proper permits, and dynamited a ski trail into Shirley Canyon despite a court injunction on construction in the area. Because of the construction, soil was discharged into Squaw Creek and two of the creek’s tributaries were altered, according to the lawsuit.
The ski lifts, built between 1998 and 1999, include the Headwall and Gold Coast chairs and the Funitel.
Despite more than a decade of bad blood between governmental water quality watchdogs and the upscale ski resort, state officials said the agreement, which also includes a long list of environmental improvements and monitoring to be performed by Squaw, may foreshadow a truce between the two.
“It sets the stage to have a better working relationship with Squaw,” said Scott Ferguson, a chief watershed officer with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
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The proposed agreement will also settle a lawsuit filed by Squaw Valley against the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board alleging that the state agency discriminated against the company and violated the ski company’s rights.
Squaw Valley did not immediately return calls for comment.
History of conflict
Since 1994 the ski corporation has been raided by armed federal agents, sued by the Sierra Club and the late billionaire William Hewlett, and repeatedly penalized by the water quality control board.
The federal investigation into alleged water quality violations, which began with a raid by Environmental Protection Agency officials in 2000, was later dropped.
In January of 2002, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board asked California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to partner in a lawsuit against the ski resort.
The decision to ask the highest law officer in the state to step in was uncommon, said Robert Dodds, assistant executive officer of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“Large cases (like this) are rare,” Dodds said.
In filing the lawsuit, Lockyer said the legal action was in response to a pattern of violations.
“Squaw Valley has refused to follow environmental protection laws and take steps necessary to prevent sediment runoff into area waterways,” Lockyer said in a press release when the lawsuit was issued. “The Tahoe ski resort must be held accountable for its continued disregard of water quality and other environmental standards designed to protect precious Sierra Nevada natural resources.”
The $900,000 that Squaw Valley will pay to the state will go to the Department of Justice. State officials did not know whether the money would be reinvested into the Truckee River basin or the Squaw Creek watershed.
Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council, said she hopes the funds are used to improve the water quality of Squaw Creek, since that was the issue that spurred the litigation.
“It would be our preference that, to the extent possible, the money be spent in the Olympic Valley or the Squaw Creek watershed,” she said.
Squaw Creek and the Truckee River are listed as having “impaired water quality,” largely due to soil sediment that runs into the waterways.
Negotiations to settle the lawsuit began early on, Ferguson said. The final settlement outlines escalating fines the ski resort will pay if it fails to comply with monitoring and re-vegetation at the resort.
The ski resort will also have to either pay for an environmental impact report to be prepared for the Headwall ski lift, or pay a fee of $100,000, the settlement said.
“I think it will probably alleviate some of the situations that took place in the past,” Ferguson said.
With the lawsuit on the verge of being resolved, the regional water quality board is now ready to move on, Dodds said.
“We’re glad the case is settled,” he said.
On the Net:
The settlement can be viewed at http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/lahontan/