HANFORD — Local critics of the California High-Speed Rail Authority project took a new tact Tuesday by arguing the route violates environmental justice laws.

The argument came at a meeting at the Hanford Fraternal Hall to take official public comment on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield draft environmental impact report. The deadline for official comment is Oct. 19, an extension of 30 days over the original deadline of Sept. 20.

Authority officials want to finalize the document next year and begin construction. Building is set to begin on another section north of Fresno. No timetable has been given for when building might happen on proposed routes through Kings County.

But the choice to run through disadvantaged rural areas and impact farms, homes and business in towns such as Corcoran violates environmental justice protections in the National Environmental Policy Act, critics said Tuesday. A route along Interstate 5, going through undeveloped land, would avoid such impacts, they argued.

They also argued that the Authority had failed to coordinate decision-making with Kings County officials and to properly notify people as required under the national act.

“It could easily become a NEPA environmental justice disaster,” said Todd Fukuda, member of Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability.

“Why is HSR going through Corcoran?” said Corcoran resident Charlene Hook. “We still can’t figure that one out.”

Rail officials didn’t immediately respond. They said all questions would be addressed in the final draft EIR document.

In the past, HSR officials have argued a route down the middle of the San Joaquin Valley will benefit local residents by giving them more access to the rest of the state.

Late notification of impacted parties is an issue, said Michael LaSalle, a retired attorney who has property within the proposed alignment west of Hanford. 

Many property owners didn’t attend earlier meetings because they didn’t know they were affected, he said.

“We do believe the project has violated the environmental justice provisions of NEPA,” LaSalle said.

No meetings were held in Kings County when the Authority decided to abandon an Interstate 5 alignment in 2005, said Frank Oliveira, CCHSRA co-chairman.

Speakers were greeted by rounds of applause as they finished making their comments.

So far, the only lawsuit Kings County has filed is one arguing that the project violates Proposition 1A, the ballot measure in 2008 that approved $9.95 billion in funding. The case is waiting for a hearing in state court in Sacramento.

Many said the hearing was a waste of time. 

Farmer Leonard Baker, whose property would be affected, noted the many empty seats in the room.

“They’ve been hitting their heads against the wall, and they have yet to receive answers that are satisfactory,” Baker said. “So they aren’t showing up.”

“It’s almost a waste of oxygen and calories, because [Authority officials] already know what they are going to do,” LaSalle said. “We’re putting comments in the record that will later be used in connection with a lawsuit. We don’t see this thing changing politically, so our main recourse will be through the court system.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or snidever@HanfordSentinel.com

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