When Williams Communications first proposed to bury miles of "wholesale" fiber optic cable under two of Mendo's rural County roads back in 2000, Governor Gray Davis's PUC over-ruled the state Attorney General who had strongly recommended that such major cable installation projects require an Environmental Impact Report. The Attorney General wrote a convincing explanation for why an EIR was legally required: the work was over the San Andreas fault, Northcoast soils are inherently unstable, improper precautions or methods might result in major road slippage, etc.
The PUC's heedless decision to waive the EIR meant that relatively cashless Mendolanders near the proposed trenching would have to come up with the big bucks to challenge the PUC's ruling in favor of Williams Communications, one more decision in favor of a private entity achieved, as it turned out, at public expense.
So there was no challenge to the trenching, and no EIR.
But Williams still needed encroachment permits from Caltrans and the Mendo Board of Supervisors before they could dig. Caltrans approved the Highway One and Highway 253 permits on the condition that the cable be "undergrounded" — a more costly method than simple trenching that meant using a horizontally-drilled underground tube-like hole for the cable.
Caltrans and many locals knew that a four-foot trench in Mendo's coastal rural roads would permanently ruin them and greatly increase the cost of future maintenance. But Mendo's Supervisors let Williams go ahead and trench Mountain View Road and Fish Rock Road when Williams' lawyer stoutly "guaranteed" that the roads could and would be restored to "the same or better condition" upon completion. A token permit fee was paid. But, in fact, stretches of both roads were permanently destabilized.
Mendo's clueless supervisors at the time — Michael Delbar, Richard Shoemaker, Tom Lucier, Patricia Campbell, and David Colfax — approved the Williams permit over the warnings and objections of a small group of Anderson Valley and Coastal residents. (If Cowboy Johnny Pinches had been on the Board things might have been different…)
Permit in hand, Williams proceeded to dig their trench, although it was never clear who was doing the actual work since much of the heavy trenching equipment was rented — a sure sign that Williams was not only paying too much, but that the work wasn't particularly well planned or supervised.
Several large ranches whose lands bordered the road didn't particularly like the idea of their road being wrecked, but they didn't complain because they got some money from Williams for various forms of temporary neighboring land access rights.
After months of local traffic snarls, the gaping trenches were covered up and the pavement patched, but the roads still look rough and wrinkled to the mostly local drivers on the road — hardly "as good or better," as had been promised.
(A recent google maps street view still clearly shows the remnants of the trench, paved over, but permanently weakened.)
A County-commissioned study — prepared in response to citizen pressure in hopes of getting Williams to improve the patch job — released back in 2002, confirmed residents' predictions that the roadbed had been irreparably damaged. The two compacted six-foot wide slabs of soil created by the trench started moving toward the trench when it was first dug, and it continues to move inward toward the weakened area of the filled-in trench, even after compaction and refill.
The study, by Chico-based Chec Engineering, specialists in this kind of road damage, says that the roadbed has suffered "significant structural damage."
According to the study, the only way to partially mitigate the damage is to substantially increase the pavement thickness and hope it holds it together — an expensive proposition.
But the problem went deeper. In late 2002, Williams Communications' parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It seems the cable communications industry stuck way more cable in the ground than anybody wanted back before the 2000 dot.com went dot.bust. (Mendo County, by the way, got no cable access, no nothing from this destructive project.)
Using the new engineering study documenting the obvious and already known, Mendocino County asked the bankrupt Williams to do something about the road damage the Mendo Supervisors allowed them to do. Williams' bankruptcy notice insisted that their day-to-day cable operations wouldn’t be affected by the bankruptcy filing. But Williams simultaneously tried to get creditors to accept their nearly worthless stock — not an optimistic sign.
Theoretically Mendo had some leverage over Williams because all that they actually installed in the trench was an empty conduit. There's not even a cable down there to show for all the trouble! So at the time there was the possibility that Williams would have to get another permit to install the actual cable, a permit that could have imposed improvement conditions.
But Williams Communications, the telecom company itself, was later sold to a vulture capitalist by parent company Williams Communications Group, which itself was bailed out of bankruptcy by Warren Buffett on condition that it stick to energy pipelines and not telecommunications. And Williams Communications never applied for the second permit.
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As best we recall, Mendo eventually got a small cash settlement out of Williams in bankruptcy court, but nothing was done about the physical damage to Mountain View Road. Periodically, the Independent Coast Observer runs pictures of segments of Mountain View Road on the Coast side showing wrinkled asphalt and other road damage that usually gets smoothed or patched by County road crews who probably don’t even know the history of how that trench got there or realize that there’s nothing in the trench except an empty conduit.
The ugly paved over trench is still visible in the middle of Mountain View Road as seen in this recent Google Streetview pic.
Last week, we heard that Mountain View Road had to be closed (again) because another chunk of the road had collapsed, making passage by low clearance vehicles difficult and dangerous. We await a more detailed report of the nature of this winter’s damage, but given the history, Mountain View Road will continue to collapse and be patched until it collapses so much in one section or another that it is beyond local repair capacity.
County Transpo Director Howard Deshield is pretty creative though. Maybe he can get some FEMA storm damage money and finance some improvements to Mountain View Road before the next storm hits.
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Randy Burke of Gualala adds: I recall after moving to Mendo county in 2001 the interest in resolving the issues you remind the reader of. What I find interesting is that there has been no mention of a performance bond or a maintenance bond. There may have been both of these in place, I am not sure. But had they been activated, the bonding companies would have ended upon the financial hook to make the installation whole to county/state specs. Thanks for the great update, and don’t be surprised when you see how that road is doing after this last winter.