Rubio Canyon Cleanup Hits Snag

Procedural error halts removal of debris.

Written by Becky Oskin
Staff Writer, Pasadena Star News

ALTADENA — The Forest Service’s regional office has reversed a local decision to remove 35,000 cubic yards of construction debris from Rubio Canyon by trucking out the granite boulders on a temporary road.

The judgment brings to a standstill efforts to clean up the canyon and its five buried waterfalls, but it may be a temporary setback.

“The problem we found was a procedural flaw, not a fatal flaw,’ said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Vallejo. Fixing the problem could be as simple as securing a letter from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service saying a rare plant won’t be affected by the project.

The decision to restore Rubio Canyon was issued in September after five years of rancor and a long environmental assessment process. The plan involves building a road within the sinuous canyon stream bed and hauling out rock debris by truck.

“This is the quickest way for the canyon to heal and has the least impact on the environment,’ Angeles National Forest Supervisor Jody Cook said at the time. The Forest Service Regional Office analyzed the Angeles National Forest plan after two appeals were filed earlier this year. The appeals came from Altadena resident Heinz Ellersieck, who lives at the mouth of Rubio Canyon, and nonprofit water company Rubio Canon Land and Water Association, whose pipe replacement project led to the creation of the rock pile.

In a letter issued last week, Deputy Regional Forester Bernard Weingardt said the Angeles National Forest failed to get a letter from the Fish & Wildlife Service agreeing the road project was unlikely to adversely affect Braunton’s milkvetch, a plant on the federal endangered species list.

A tall perennial with light purple flowers, Braunton’s milkvetch favors limestone soils and thrives after chaparral fires. Though its preferred habitat is rare in the San Gabriel Mountains, the milkvetch was collected near Monrovia in 1983, according to the Ventura County Fish & Wildlife Office.

If the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it agrees with the Angeles finding on the milkvetch, Forest Supervisor Cook could reissue her Rubio decision unchanged.

The Fish & Wildlife Service could also require modifications to the plan, to protect the milkvetch.

Contractors hired by Rubio Water caused the environmental disaster while building a ledge to stabilize and support a water pipe damaged by landslides during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The 1998 pipe project was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and initially approved by the Forest Service.

Rubio Water’s appeal asked the Forest Service to consider another cleanup method leveling the pile with a bulldozer and letting nature remove the rock during periodic floods.

Weingardt did not address this request in his letter.

In 2002, Congress set aside $1 million to remove the debris and mitigate environmental damage in the canyon. The Forest Service has indicated it holds the water company responsible, while Rubio Water counters the work was performed with Forest Service approval and oversight.

The Forest Service has said it plans to charge Rubio Water for the cleanup costs.

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