A Caltrans contractor likely filled in a wetland without the proper permits during construction work along Highway 101 south of Petaluma, Sonoma County officials said, an action that could trigger state and federal fines or efforts to restore the damaged environment.
The apparent violation — stemming from activity that began in late 2012 — has put a much-needed stockpile of construction materials essentially on hold pending environmental study, and could delay or drive up costs on a pair of Highway 101 widening projects totalling $87 million, according to the contractor, Ghilotti Bros.
Caltrans maintains that the work will be delivered on time and within the budget.
The reported violation occurred at a staging area alongside the highway that Ghilotti Bros. has used to stockpile more than 50,000 cubic yards of dirt and crushed concrete for the construction project.
The San Rafael-based construction company leased the five-acre site — at 4555 Redwood Highway — from the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. But Ghilotti Bros. failed to obtain the required permits to store the material, county officials said.
"After doing a site visit, we determined that wetlands were likely on the site," said Misti Harris, a county planner. "It is highly probable that wetlands were filled in."
The discovery happened late last year after Caltrans refused to take material from the staging area, citing Ghilotti Bros. lack of permits for the property. The rejection forced the company to apply to the county and triggered the county inspection.
Ghilotti Bros., for its part, said its own environmental consultants determined there were no wetlands on the site, near the Petaluma River.
"We thought we were doing the right thing," said Mike Ghilotti, president of Ghilotti Bros. "Wetlands come and go. They're seasonal. We didn't go and put dirt on top of water."
The dirt remains in a large heap at the staging area, located less than a mile from the southernmost highway construction site. Caltrans will need the material this summer to fill the route for a widened highway roadbed and interchange ramps.
Ghilotti Bros. is pushing Caltrans to allow use of the fill, arguing that it will be cheaper and more environmentally friendly since it would save having to haul material from farther away.
"The dirt is there; the project needs it," Mike Ghilotti said. "Just let us take it to the job and be done with it."
But the company must secure permits from state and federal agencies before it can get a go-ahead to use the stockpiled material on the highway project, Caltrans officials said.
The Dry Creek Rancheria, meanwhile, has terminated its lease with Ghilotti Bros., leaving the fate of the valuable construction materials in further limbo.
Ghilotti Bros. established the stockpile site in November 2012 to serve its Highway 101 widening projects at South Petaluma Boulevard and the Petaluma River bridge.
The company's bids for the two projects, which total $87 million, were lower than those of other contractors partly due to the cost-savings of having a materials staging area so close to the construction site, Ghilotti said.
The company could have used staging areas that Caltrans provided within its right of way, but chose not to do so, according to Allyn Amsk, Caltrans spokesman.
When Ghilotti Bros. in April applied for a county use permit, it hired Sacramento-based consultant Environmental Science Associates, which studied the site and determined that no wetlands existed within the stockpile area.