Highway agency works to stem sediment flow into stream
Friday, March 26, 2010
LITTLE ROCK — State highway officials have begun work on a $1.6 million plan to stop the flow of sediment from an Arkansas 23 construction project into a Mulberry River tributary as state and federal environmental regulators consider penalties for the pollution.
“Even if they were to completely be able to remediate the site right now, that still doesn’t necessarily resolve any possible penalty,” said Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the Arkansas Departmentof Environmental Quality.
Benefield said the department will continue its enforcement action against the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department while it reviews a mitigation plan that the agency submitted Wednesday.
The plan comes in response to reports by environmental inspector Jeff Tyler, who detailed runoff problems that caused sediment to flow into a tributary of Mountain Creek half a mile downhill from the Arkansas 23 construction site.
Tyler began monitoring the site after a resident about 5 miles downstream complained about sediment in Mountain Creek, which feeds the Mulberry River.
Heavy rains caused the collapse of a 1, 200-foot section of Arkansas 23, a 19-mile stretch also known as the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, in March 2008. A second collapse prompted the state to close the road in December after repair work had begun.
The Highway Department approved a $1.6 million change order to address runoff problems Wednesday.
Most of the mitigation cost - $1.3 million - stems from removing dirt and rocks from the roadbed and alongside Arkansas 23 where contractor Kesser International is rebuilding the road, said Randy Ort, Highway Department spokesman.
That waste material had been leveled, seeded and mulched, but then heavy rain caused it to start sliding, according to officials.
Kesser International has already started building a gravel road to accommodate the heavy equipment needed to remove the material, Ort said.
The flow of underground water that caused the road to collapse in the first place is causing the sediment-runoff problem, Ort said.
Repairs are intended to stabilize the hillside, but there is no guarantee there won’t be another slide.
“It’s going to happen again, maybe not here, but up there again,” Ort said. “We’ve had slides all over north Arkansas, but most don’t impair roadways.”
The mitigation plan also calls for digging a trench along the base of the roadway to direct rainwater into two natural channels, Ort said. The channels will be lined with rock, he said.
The hillside will be seeded and mulched, but until that vegetation takes hold, wattles will be used to control surface runoff. Wattles are similar to sandbags and are used to stop sediment while still allowing water to flow through.
Benefield said he expects his staff to submit a draft consent administrative order next week to outline steps the Highway Department and Kesser International need to take to fix the problem.
At a minimum, the order will require the Highway Department to implement its plan as submitted, Benefield said. The order could include additional remediation steps and a fine.
Biologists have said sediment 2- to 10-inches deep has choked out aquatic life in the tributary and in Mountain Creek, although the pollution dissipates quickly in the Mulberry River.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also pursuing enforcement action against the Highway Department and was expected to send a notice late Thursday or today, said Kyle Clark, chief of its enforcement branch and regulatory division.
Clark said the Highway Department will have 14 days to respond, but the Corps will likely accept any plan approved by the state environmental department.
State Sen. Ruth Whitaker, R-Cedarville, said she is waiting to hear back from Teresa Marks, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, and will continue to monitor the project. Whitaker questioned Highway Department officials about the runoff problem during the Legislature’s recent fiscal session.
Benefield said the consent administrative order will provide a legal framework to ensure that the Highway Department follows through with its plan and takes any needed future action. He said he expects the department to continue to cooperate.
Benefield couldn’t say whether the Highway Department has been subject to a consent administrative order before.
“I think it is fair to say it is uncommon, given the amount of work performed by the Highway Department,” he said.
Highway officials don’t plan to remove a portion of the spoil material that broke loose and slid into the tributary of Mountain Creek. Biologists have said removing that material could do more harm than good.
Arkansas, Pages 11 on 03/26/2010