USACE investigation begins

 


More investigations from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) may be forthcoming following an inspection conducted by two USACE officials May 6. The federal regulators were here to investigate if work done by the town in late April had violated the terms of a permit the agency issued Saratoga in December of 2012.

Between April 19 and 22, Saratoga street workers “armored” an abutment securing a pedestrian bridge connecting Veterans Island to the west bank of the Platte. The armoring process involved placing large stones, boulders and gravel around the base of the bridge on the Veterans Island side to prevent erosion and bridge failure in the case of high water.

According to the USACE, The town did so under the auspices of the 2012 permit, which was issued to former Saratoga Mayor John Zeiger and his director of public works Chuck Bartlett. That permit is active for five years from the date of issue.

Multiple sources said that to ferry the armoring material, town workers had to drive heavy equipment across the low-water crossing on “Cadwell Slough,” which is a channel of the Platte between Veterans Island and the river’s east bank. Many trips across the slough were required to move all of the rocks into place, raising red flags with several area residents, who were concerned that the work could harm the rainbow trout spawn.


In the weeks leading up to the pedestrian bridge work, DEQ informed Saratoga that a different project to clear gravel bars near the HWY 130 bridge, could not be completed. In a letter to the town, DEQ officials noted that the rainbow trout spawning season occurs between March 15 and May 15, and the increase in turbidity created by that project could impact the spawn and was thus not allowed.

In light of the timing stipulations of that permit, several residents were concerned when they saw a front-end loader making multiple trips across the slough for the armoring project. Their reports lead to the investigation by the USACE, which is ongoing.

“We’ve heard from enough concerned citizens that we wanted to come up here ourselves and see what had been done,” said Mike Happold, the State Program Manager for Wyoming’s Regulatory Office of the USACE. Happold was one of the two inspectors sent to examine the work done by Saratoga. Happold said that the work had been done above the “ordinary high-water mark,” alleviating one of the agency’s concerns. Work below that point would have violated the timing stipulations of the 2012 permit, he said.

Instead, it was the crossing of the slough to conduct the work that the USACE officials viewed as potentially problematic. “It seems like the most contentious issue is that low-water crossing,” said Ellison Koonce, a regulatory specialist with USACE, who was also present for the May 6 inspection.

According to Koonce, crossing that stretch of water has been done frequently in years past, but was not necessarily permitted. “It had become routine, and is a routine thing to cross (the slough with equipment) - which isn’t necessarily how DEQ or other agencies will view it,” Koonce said.

Happold agreed with this assessment. “We heard them talk about, ‘Well, we cross that river all the time,” he said.

According to Happold, Saratoga Mayor Ed Glode and director of public works Jon Winter, who attended the USACE inspection both appeared not to know that the crossing was an issue. “The city kind of gave us the impression, I guess, that they - they didn’t know the time frames for the spawn,” he said.

Winter would not comment for this article, and Glode declined to go into detail about the USACE’s inspection.

In the verification package sent to the town of Saratoga dated December 18, 2012, the USACE granted Saratoga a nationwide number 14 permit to construct the pedestrian bridge. The third clause of nationwide permit number 14 reads “Activities that result in the physical destruction (e.g. through excavation, fill or downstream smothering by substantial turbidity) of an important spawning area are not permitted.” The nationwide permit number 14 also reads “spawning season for common trout species are: Rainbow and cutthroat trout March 15 through July 31.”

“They had verification to do that (armoring) work, but not during those time periods,” Happold said of the discrepancy. “A lot of people just – when we send out a verification they know that between these dates you can’t do any of the work,” Happold said following his inspection.

“Whether (Saratoga) didn’t know about it –those dates– or didn’t read it, we – you know, we don’t know that,” Happold concluded, declining to speculate.

The USACE officials likewise declined to speak about what consequences the town could face if its actions are found to have been in violation of the permit. The next step in the investigation, Happold said, would be “talking internally, and then talking with DEQ.” Koonce concurred, saying “It’ll be coordination with them to see how to proceed, but it’s definitely not completed today.”

Repeated requests for comment from the DEQ received no response as of publication.

 

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