SAN BERNARDINO — The San Bernardino County district attorney decided Thursday not to file charges against Caltrans and its contractor for dumping millions of pounds of asphalt debris along a protected mountain trout stream last year.
Dist. Atty. Dennis Kottmeier said he will not pursue charges because Caltrans has cleaned up much of the powdered asphalt at Deep Creek and because prosecution would be "costly and time-consuming."
Earlier, Kottmeier's prosecutors repeatedly had said he had strong evidence and planned to file about 50 criminal counts against Caltrans employees, E. L. Yeager Construction and perhaps the transportation agency, charging violations of California's environmental laws.
Discouraged state wildlife officials who investigated the pollution accusations said there was intense political pressure from Caltrans and state and local politicians to drop the case.
"Caltrans has essentially admitted responsibility for the actions and they have substantially cleaned it up," Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Johns said. "As a result, because everyone has limited resources these days, we had to decide if there was anything to be gained by prosecuting Caltrans."
State wildlife officials call the Deep Creek incident the largest case of stream pollution in Southern California, and it triggered a bitter feud between Caltrans and the state Department of Fish and Game. About 14 million pounds of asphalt waste, removed from California 18 during resurfacing, was deposited along a five-mile stretch of the creek between Running Springs and the Snow Valley ski resort.
One of two state-designated wild trout streams in the San Bernardino Mountains, Deep Creek is considered a rare resource because it is still in its natural state, and its spawning grounds nurture rainbow and brown trout.
Fish and Game Warden Rick Coelho, who discovered the pollution in the mountain stream in November, said Thursday that the evidence he collected was overwhelming against Caltrans, one of its on-site supervisors and Yeager Construction, a Riverside-based firm that is one of the largest transportation contractors in California.
"The D.A.'s office has filed these charges on people in the past when the cases weren't as good as this one. This case was clean-cut. We had a videotape of them violating the law," Coelho said.
Jim Hall, president of the 200-member Fishing Assn. of Big Bear Lake, said that the amount of material dumped in the creek was shocking and that the district attorney is sending a message to polluters that they can get away with spoiling resources.
Kottmeier denied any political motive. He said that there was no proof of severe ecological damage, and that even if his office won the case the end result would only be fines against a government agency.