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Brown seeks to reduce environmental protections for bullet train

With legal challenges mounting, governor circulates legislation designed to diminish the possibility foes could stop the project with an environmental suit.

June 04, 2012|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • An artist's rendering shows the planned California high-speed rail station in Fresno.
An artist's rendering shows the planned California high-speed rail… (California High-Speed…)

With legal challenges to the California bullet train mounting, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday began circulating proposed legislation designed to significantly diminish the possibility that opponents could stop the project with an environmental lawsuit.

Brown's office sent the proposal to a group of powerful environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Planning Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, hoping to win their support for the special legal protection.

The proposal puts environmental groups in a tough spot. Brown is asking them to agree to water down one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in history, but for a project they support because of its potential to help reduce vehicle emissions and global warming.

The legislation would most immediately affect suits brought by Central Valley agricultural interests, which have been among the project's leading critics because of potential effects on farms, dairies, processing plants and other holdings.

Brown's proposal would modify the California Environmental Quality Act solely for the bullet train project. It would "prohibit a court" from issuing an injunction or other stop work orders unless those filing the lawsuit show their damages substantially outweigh the harm to the state and those employed by the $6-billion initial phase of the project.

The potential loss to the state could include more than $2 billion in federal funds. The proposal would apply to any action filed since January, including a lawsuit brought last week by Merced County and the Madera and Merced farm bureaus.

Brown may be asking too much of the green lobby.

"There is a good deal of skepticism even among groups who want to support the high-speed rail," said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning Conservation League.

Even before the draft language had been circulated, Sierra Club Director Kathryn Phillips said, "It is astounding that the governor and his appointees to the high-speed rail authority are resorting to weakening environmental review."

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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