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Caltrans to Be Charged in Dumping Asphalt Into Stream : Environment: San Bernardino prosecutor says he'll file up to 50 counts against agency and contractors for allegedly violating trout streams.


A San Bernardino County prosecutor said Tuesday that he will file up to 50 misdemeanor counts against Caltrans and two construction companies for depositing large amounts of ground-up asphalt in a protected trout stream and tributaries of Big Bear Lake.

The criminal charges will be filed, probably in early February, against the agency and contractors E.L. Yeager Construction of Riverside and Wakeham-Baker Inc. of Fountain Valley, Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Johns said. If any of those charged are convicted, the maximum fine is $2,000 for each violation per party.

State Fish and Game officials said originally that they believed that only the two companies and two Caltrans employees would face charges. But Johns said the district attorney's office has decided to prosecute the state agency, and later may add charges against individual managers and supervisors employed by Caltrans.

The charges will allege that Caltrans violated California's Fish and Game laws that prohibit dumping of asphalt and other materials in or near a state waterway.

Beyond the 39 to 50 charges he expects to file next month, Johns said he is considering hitting Caltrans with more serious charges of violating the state's water pollution laws and health and safety codes, which carry fines as high as $25,000 per day for each count. The district attorney's office is awaiting the results of chemical tests in the streams before deciding whether to expand the case to add the other charges.

Fish and Game Warden Rick Coelho, who investigated the case, said an estimated 14 million pounds of ground-up asphalt from the resurfacing of California 18 was dumped in and alongside 5 miles of Deep Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains near Running Springs. Also, a smaller amount was deposited in tributaries of Big Bear Lake, he said.

Officials from Caltrans and the two companies contend that they were following routine highway construction practices and that they did not intentionally dump in the stream.

Deep Creek is a state-designated wild trout stream, widely considered the best in the region. It is highly valued for its spawning grounds as well as its willow-lined banks inhabited by black bear, deer, cougars and other animals.

"What may not have been criminal conduct along I-10 is criminal conduct here, along the Deep Creek riparian habitat," Johns said. "In the long term, if enough of this material gets into the stream bed, it could pose some problems."

No dead fish or injured wildlife have been reported, but the area is covered with snow, and Fish and Game biologists fear the pollutants could damage the ecosystem and contaminate the food chain.

Deborah Robertson, a Caltrans spokeswoman in San Bernardino, said Tuesday that agency attorneys had not heard of the district attorney's plans and could not comment. She said the asphalt material is not hazardous and was placed along the road's edge as shoulder backing. The material that wound up in the streams was accidental, she said.

Yeager Construction was the contractor responsible for the highway project along Deep Creek, while Wakeham-Baker handled it near Big Bear.

Bob Wakeham, president of Wakeham-Baker Inc., said that his company did not dump anything and that it followed standard procedures outlined by Caltrans when it resurfaced and widened about 4.5 miles of California 18 near Big Bear.

"It wasn't dumped. It was rolled and compacted in place. We recycled the material," he said. "We loaded everything and took it exactly where we were supposed to take it. I think this is just somebody being overzealous from some department."

Representatives of Yeager Construction did not return phone calls Tuesday from The Times.

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