Authorities investigate viral video of boulder causing slope damage at Emerald Bay
The Tahoe Planning Agency (TRPA) and the California Department of Transportation are investigating a Facebook video that appears to show a highway contractor allowing a boulder to roll down a slope and cause environmental damage at Emerald Bay at South Lake Tahoe.
According to spokesman Tom Lotshaw, TRPA received a complaint and the video on May 21 regarding the Facebook post and immediately opened an investigation.
TRPA found evidence of “environmental damage to the mountain slope, including damaged trees and remnants of asphalt and other material on the slope," according to Lotshaw.
***WARNING: THE FOLLOWING VIDEO CONTAINS VULGAR LANGUAGE***
On May 25, TRPA compliance staff issued an official request for Clatrans and Stewart Engineering "to install adequate erosion measures at the site as required by the permit to prevent erosion and construction materials from being spread off the site".
On June 7, TRPA compliance staff found "those erosion control measures were not in place or being put in place". The agency sent a 24-hour notice to the contractor, Stewart Engineering of Redding, California and Caltrans to install erosion control along State Route 89.
On June 8, the erosion control mitigation was completed.
Caltrans spokesman, Steve Nelson, said the first time Caltrans staff saw the video was May 21, after which it took immediate action.
While Nelson said a Caltrans engineer is onsite every day during the project, he said the engineer was not present at the time of the video.
Nelson said that fencing, hay bales and netting were in place throughout the project. Nelson said Caltrans, "thought they were in compliance, but the TRPA inspector had a different interpretation".
Nelson said that after they received the cease and desist letter on June 7 , crews added more fencing, hay bales and netting. Nelson said the TRPA inspector was satisfied upon returning to the construction site on June 8.
Caltrans said it hired an arborist to devise a long-term restoration plan. The arborist is also expected to treat damaged trees and plant new trees.
The arborist found that 20-25 trees were damaged during an investigation. Nelson said that some were damaged from the activities seen in the video, but that others were damaged as a result of other unknown causes.
Caltrans said it has applied spray to stabilize the soil.
Nelson said crews will also sweep the hillside for debris at the conclusion of the project.
News 4 met with the man who took the video of the incident. He asked that he not be identified for fear that he would be fired from his new job.
He said he was fired from Stewart Engineering after he told his boss they needed to stop engaging in the type of activity that can be seen in the viral video.
His lawyer has filed an OSHA complaint and is considering legal action.
The potential lawsuit would be for wrongful termination in violation of public policy and for violation of the California whistle blower law.
Lotshaw says the contractor could face civil penalties and the company will most likely have to come up with a restoration plan to repair the damage to the slope.
According to the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact:
Any person who violates any ordinance or regulation of the Agency is subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $5,000 and an additional $5,000 per day, for each day in which such a violation persists. In imposing the penalties authorized by this subdivision, the court shall consider the nature of the violation and shall impose a greater penalty if it was willful or resulted from gross negligence than if it resulted from inadvertence or simple negligence.
He also mentioned that Caltrans has partnered with TRPA on over 700 miles of erosion work on roadways. He said TRPA has never had any issues like this.
Stewart Engineering was hired by Caltrans to perform road improvements on a section of SR-89 at Emerald Bay.
According to Caltrans spokesman Steve Nelson, the contractor was hired for $4 million to install a 192-foot retaining wall and other roadway improvements.
The project is expected to be completed on Wednesday, according to Caltrans.