Caltrans has changed its test drilling practices as the result of pressure from the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department. It issued a violation notice to the agency in December seeking to have over 500 test wells identified, examined, and plugged up.
Two years ago, county regulators discovered a Caltrans crew drilling in the south county without a permit and without their knowledge.
The investigative website CalWatchdog discovered that over 500 such wells, 4 to 6 inches wide were drilled in the county over a 24-year span.
"We thought that certain provisions of the water code didn't apply to us," said Mark Dinger, Caltrans spokesperson.
Other counties also had issues with Caltrans drilling, which normally require a permit and site inspections. There are also strict rules on back filling the wells, used to test the ground before construction takes place.
CalWatchdog says many of the sites were lost to time or have been built over. But the Sacramento County's violation notice threatens millions of dollars in fines if wells aren't identified and capped properly.
Dinger says the agency was responsible in its actions even if their legal assessment was that they were exempt from local drilling rules.
"We actually did environmental studies to make sure that we weren’t drilling in areas of known contamination, that we weren’t drilling near aquifers if we didn’t have to," said Dinger.
Still Caltrans changed its policy in 2014 after complaints from other counties and now complies with all local rules regarding drilling.
The agency says it's in meetings with the county to try to rectify any violations.
County officials would not comment on the violation order before a legal assessment is made of Caltrans' response to the complaint.