February 6, 1995 in Nation/World

Another Rough Road Construction On U.S. Highway 95 North Of Sandpoint Has Become Mired In Problems

Kevin Keating Staff Writer

A multimilliondollar highway project north of here has turned into a muddy environmental monster.

Several state agencies are saying the Idaho Transportation Department is the mastermind behind the mess.

“It’s pretty obvious they have some serious problems,” said Gwen Burr, regional director for the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality.

Construction on a seven-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 95 has polluted Sand Creek, filled another stream with dirt and ruined nearly four acres of wetlands, environmental officials said.

A 400-foot section of new roadbed has sunk into a bog and needs to be redesigned. Tons of fill packed into the bog also raised a nearby field. The onceflat land now is pocked with bumps that look like round bales of hay, some bulging 13 feet out of the ground.

Muddy runoff from acres of land stripped of its topsoil even has flooded parts of the old highway where traffic cautiously passes maintenance crews.

“Had some planning and design been done up-front, a lot of this could have been avoided,” said Burr.

Transportation officials admit the $6.8 million project hasn’t gone as planned. But they insist erosion problems are under control and that destroyed wetlands and private property will be restored.

“There are some legitimate concerns because we do have problems,” said Tom Baker, the Transportation Department’s Coeur d’Alene-based district engineer. “It’s a very difficult area to build roads, but the problems are getting taken care of.”

Burr’s office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Idaho Department of Lands and Bonner County Soil Conservation Service all said problems shouldn’t have occurred in the first place. They blame highway officials for shoddy planning.

The corps even ordered work stopped on sections until some better plans are in place.

“There are some major decisions to be made about the highway, and I expect they will be expensive,” said Mike Doherty, the corps’ environmental specialist. “There was a definite lack of planning. I don’t think anybody is trying to hide that fact.”

The Transportation Department never drilled to take soil samples from a peat bog where it built the new road. Baker said the area appeared to be a flat field, not a wetland, so it wasn’t tested.

Even though the new roadbed obviously was sinking in the bog, the department continued to dump in more fill.

“We thought it would sink and then compact, but it didn’t,” Baker said.

Instead, more than 5,000 truckloads of dirt gave new contours to John Porter’s field, pushed his fence back 60 feet and snapped underground fiber-optic telephone cables.

“I’ve been contacted by some people who want me to join in a lawsuit against the ITD, but that’s not my style,” Porter said.

“They guaranteed me when the project is done my land will be back the way it was. I’ll just sit tight for now and see what happens.”

The department planned to build a new 28-foot-high roadbed through the bog. Ronald Chassie, an independent engineer hired by the department, tested the site after the land buckled. He said 17 feet of fill was dumped in the bog, but the road still was only 5 feet high. Most of the dirt sank.

The department had the same problem when rebuilding Interstate 90 near Lake Coeur d’Alene in 1990, Chassie said in a report. On that project, highway officials tried to put fill on the silty lake bottom. The section collapsed under the weight of the fill and sent two bulldozers into the lake.

If the department had taken soil samples on the Highway 95 project, the corps’ Doherty said, they would have known the area wouldn’t hold a 28-foot-high roadbed.

Last week, the Transportation De partment finished taking soil samples from the area, more than a month after problems surfaced. A new construction plan for the wetland will be designed and submitted to the corps.

The department also is working on a long-term erosion-control plan. It is supposed to keep road banks from sloughing and acres of dirt out of Sand Creek, which flows into Lake Pend Oreille.

A large amount of sediment already has reached the creek, said environmental quality director Burr.

“There have been some serious failures,” she said, adding the erosion control should have started much earlier. It didn’t, because the Transportation Department sidestepped a formal review of plans by the Division of Environmental Quality.

“They have not been cooperative,” she said.

In a letter to Baker, Burr said her agency’s concerns were ignored and promises were made but never kept.

“The pattern we have observed of agreement at meetings, then changing your position later is especially disturbing,” Burr wrote.

The project even has drawn fire from Sandpoint’s Chamber of Commerce.

“We are extremely concerned about the existing damage to Sand Creek and nearby wetlands,” chamber President Rick Cox said in a letter to Baker.

“It is our understanding that a great deal of comment was … received from local professional scientists before the project started. If attention had been paid to this input, the current situation could have been prevented.”

The chamber now wants more monitoring of another construction project just west of the city on U.S. Highway 2. Severe erosion problems have cropped up there, with mud running into the Pend Oreille River, Doherty said.

Because of the recent problems, Baker said his department will change the way it works with other agencies on highway projects. Environmental officials will be brought in during the design stage to help point out potential problems.

“That’s been our position for years,” said a frustrated Burr. “We want to change the way the ITD does business so we can prevent pollution rather than fix damage.”

In the meantime, the corps and DEQ hope temporary fixes on Highway 95 will survive the spring rains.

“This is not going to go away,” Burr said.

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