Three Merced-based environmental groups filed suit a week ago against the University of California Board of Regents, Merced County and the Virginia Smith Trust on grounds that the Environmental Impact Report for UC Merced does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

The groups claim that the UC piecemealed the report and segmented project components, in violation of the CEQA. The UC is also charged with failing to adequately address the impact on agricultural resources, air quality, water supply and quality, biological resources, hazardous materials, growth inducement, traffic, urban sprawl, schools, and mineral extraction. They are asking the court to void the regent’s approval of the EIR, and are requesting a permanent injunction to keep the UC from beginning groundbreaking in May.

The San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center joined Protect Our Water and the Central Valley Safe Environment Network in the lawsuit.

Lydia Miller, president of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center said the three groups are suing because the UC refused to release public information on the nature and impact of the project. She said the EIR was incomplete and hid the real extent of the impact of the project from the public.

“We’re trying to hold them accountable to see if it’s a project that … we want in our community; we want to know the impacts and we want to know what the project is about,” Miller said. “We have a project that still refuses to define anything to us. … There are huge issues as far as infrastructure impacts, resource impacts and certainly agriculture impacts that need to be defined.”

UC Merced plans to serve its first students in Fall 2004. But if the groups filing suit succeed, construction on the project will be postponed, and if necessary cancelled. If the UC refuses to change their EIR, the plaintiffs say they want construction plans permanently halted.

“The law says you have to identify [the impacts] and the law says you have to do certain things. So are we trying to stop it? If they refuse to comply with satisfying the law, yeah, then we’re certainly prepared to challenge it to where we don’t want this project in our backyard,” Miller said.

James Grant, the director of communication at UC Merced, said he is worried the lawsuit could delay the groundbreaking ceremony, scheduled for May 3, 2002, but is not worried the lawsuit could suspend the project permanently.

“This lawsuit could delay the project but we firmly believe that we’ll continue on,” he said.

California environmental groups sit on both sides of the campus construction issue. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized Merced for its planned environmental sustainability.

“We’re pleased that we have the support of some of the mainstream environmental groups in this project,” Grant said. “These groups that have sued here are certainly not of that stature.”

Miller said that while the plaintiffs also have support from state and national groups, they do not want to be dependent on those groups to fight their battles for them.

“It is in our backyard and if the locals don’t get up who will?” she said. “Certainly we’re getting support from the state and national groups but at the same point this is a valley issue, and the valley issue needs to be spearheaded in our backyard.”

The CEQA states that the potential amount of environmental impact must be indicated in an EIR for a development project that might affect the environment. A draft EIR – the first draft of the EIR given to the public – is supposed to say what the impacts will be and what the developer is going to do about them. If nothing can be done about the impacts, the report must explain why. It then circulates in the community and receives public comment. In the final report, the developers are supposed to answer those comments and make adjustments to the original draft if necessary. They are not required to circulate the final EIR.

UC completed a draft EIR on Aug. 15, 2001, and circulated it in the community until Oct. 4, 2001. In January, it released the final EIR, which Grant said incorporated new information based on some of the public comment.

“We certainly believe that it’s a good document; the EIR that we created was created over months by a team of scientists and environmental consultants and attorneys working for the University,” Grant said.

Miller claims the report is faulty and that public concerns were not taken into account.

“They blew off the public input,” she said. “We have a year’s worth of public records requests to get information that is pertinent to their decision making, for the public as well as for them, and they have continued to refuse to give it to us.”

Grant said that while developing this area would destroy some of the natural habitat, UC Merced would be more environmentally friendly than other forms of development and would provide a model for future residential development in the Central Valley.

“Some people really don’t want growth anywhere,” Grant said. “If we can create a planned community, it provides an example of how you can develop and preserve habitat at the same time. The preservation wouldn’t happen if the campus wasn’t here and the valley would be developed anyway.”

To compensate for the habitats destroyed in the development of the campus Merced has set aside about 6,000 acres of vernal pools near the campus and is participating in an effort to purchase conservation easements on ranchland in the region. A conservation easement is an arrangement in which ranchers are paid to continue operating their ranches.

Nobody on either side is sure of when the litigation will end.

“This could go very fast,” Miller said, “or this could be drug out for years.”