On multiple occasions last year, untreated storm water from a north Spokane freeway construction site illegally spilled into Deadman Creek, a stream that flows into the Little Spokane River.
The state Department of Transportation on Thursday acknowledged that there were violations, but it said the issue was addressed properly and that no illegal discharges have occurred since Nov. 30.
The Center for Justice, however, alleges that problems aren’t fixed and that the department lacks an adequate plan to address storm water. The center’s Spokane Riverkeeper project notified the state on Thursday that it believes the state is violating its construction permit during construction of the North Spokane Corridor.
Rick Eichstaedt, who leads Riverkeeper, said the group’s goal is to “spur them into cleaning up their project.”
“It has nothing to do with stopping the project,” Eichstaedt said. “This is about making sure that as it’s being built, it’s not going to trash our local streams.”
The notice, which argues that the state violated the Clean Water Act, gives the state 60 days to respond. If the parties fail to settle the issue in that time, the Center for Justice could file a lawsuit.
Mike Frucci, assistant administrator for project development for the Department of Transportation’s eastern region, said that since Aug. 12 – when construction began near Deadman Creek – there have been “four occasions when due to contractor activity there have been discharges that exceeded” the state’s construction permit.
But, he said, the state and contractor, Graham Construction, responded as required by its permit.
“These four instances were dealt with quickly and appropriately,” he said. “This is a very serious matter for us, and it’s why we responded so quickly when things didn’t go as we expected them to.”
The state currently is working to complete the freeway between Farwell Road and U.S. Highway 395. The stretch between Farwell almost to Francis Avenue opened last year.
Graham Construction has the contract to build the new freeway’s interchange with U.S. Highway 2. That project includes the rebuilding of a culvert for Deadman Creek to improve wildlife access, said Scott Bernhard, Graham’s district manager for infrastructure.
Bernhard said the site is challenging because of groundwater and the creek. After the measurements found that turbidity levels were too high, state regulators and the company created “an action plan to make sure it didn’t happen again,” he said.
Turbidity measures the clarity of water. High turbidity can make it difficult for fish to breathe and spawn.
Riverkeeper alleges that on 12 different days, the state measured turbidity above the level allowed in the permit, and some numbers were significantly higher than the permissible limit. On Oct. 26, for instance, Riverkeeper says that the state found a turbidity level flowing into Deadman Creek that was 223 times above permit requirements.
The group says that after vegetation was removed, some areas weren’t properly covered to prevent sediment from entering the creek during rain. It also questions why drainage piping is routing storm water directly into the stream.
Mike Chappell, director of the Gonzaga Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing Riverkeeper, said at least one discharge pipe appeared to be broken and that an expert brought to the construction area found storm water treatment to be inadequate.
Frucci said only storm water that meets standards is released into the creek. He added that he couldn’t respond to all the details outlined in the notice since the department didn’t receive a copy until Thursday. He said he will schedule a meeting with Riverkeeper soon “to get more details about their concerns” and to “share our information.”
“We feel comfortable and confident that we are well within what’s required by the permit,” Frucci said.
The issues were noticed last year, in part, by Lindell Haggin, who records water quality measurements on streams for the Spokane County Conservation District.
Haggin, a former Spokane County planning commissioner, said she’s unconvinced that the problems ended Nov. 30.
She said after a rain storm in January, Deadman Creek remained cloudy long after most area streams cleared.
“You couldn’t see anything below an inch below the surface,” she said.