State still waiting on spillway permit

State still waiting on spillway permit

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2008 8:59 pm

By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter After more than two years in the making, a decision by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to allow the Tennessee Department of Transportation to build a new spillway and bridge complex at Reelfoot Lake is imminent. “We are hoping to have our decision out in a couple of weeks,” said Larry Watson, chief of the regulatory branch, Memphis District Office, in an interview Wednesday. The decision will be made by Col. Thomas Smith, who commands the Memphis District. “We’re getting the decision to him. Our goal is to have something in two weeks,” Watson said. In an interview with The Messenger, Watson was joined by Jim Pogue, public information officer for the Memphis District. Smith’s decision may not be what Congressman John Tanner, Gov. Phil Bredesen and many other Tennesseans would like to see. Smith may decide to deny the permit, thereby stopping the project while it’s still in the planning process. “It could be,” Watson said. “Until we make a decision, I can’t really say (how it will go),” Watson said. The delay Why has it taken so long for the Corps to make a decision? “Different issues,” Watson said. “We’ve been working to clear up some issues. Things continue to pop up. But our goal is to get (the decision) out in a couple of weeks. “It was just (a matter of) working through the issues.” The latest issue involved the proposed mitigation site. A cultural resources survey was done on the site, but when Watson and his staff got the report, they realized the survey had been done for only part of the site. “So we had to go back and get clarification on the rest of it,” he said. And there was the TDEC permit. An application for it was made on Feb. 17, 2006. The permit was granted on May 20. Kentucky input A portion of Reelfoot Lake extends into the Lower Bottom District of southwestern Fulton County, Ky. Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Republican Congressman Ed Whitfield represent farming interests in southwestern Kentucky who are opposed to the spillway project. Did any of the “issues” include input from the Kentucky side of the line? “Not really,” Watson said. “We heard from them during the (public hearing) process. But that was earlier on. There hasn’t been anything from Kentucky, individuals or anyone else, lately.” As for whether the long delay can be attributed to political pressure from Kentucky, Pogue said it all depends on how you look at it. It can be viewed as people “weighing in with their opinions and advice on things.” “It’s all part of the process,” he said. “It’s not putting us in an uncomfortable position, because we want to hear everybody’s comments. But in the final analysis, it’s the facts and the law and objectivity that has to prevail.” Opposition Opposition to the spillway project is not confined to the Kentucky side. Watson and Pogue said there’s “quite a bit of opposition” on the Tennessee side as well. “There’s people concerned with the possible impact of the project, just from a general standpoint,” Pogue said. “So there’s opposition in both Tennessee and Kentucky.” The Messenger placed calls to Whitfield’s office and McConnell’s office in Washington requesting comment about the spillway project. Kristin Walker, Whitfield’s press secretary, said Whitfield has been monitoring the situation. “He has worked diligently in the past with the Kentucky and Tennessee congressional delegations to come to an equitable solution that would preserve the lake and protect the integrity of farm land in Kentucky. He looks forward to continuing that effort,” she said. McConnell did not return The Messenger’s call. Explanation, please In this scenario, there are two permits required before the project can proceed — a permit from TDEC and a permit from the Corps of Engineers. Watson explains that before the Corps can issue a permit, it must have a water quality certification permit from TDEC. “And we just got that on May 20,” he said. “We make it part of our permit. The conditions of TDEC become conditions of our permit. The Corps permit includes water quality certification. We make it part of our permit.” TDEC conditions TDEC’s conditions are detailed in an attachment to a May 20 letter from Brian Canada of the TDEC Natural Resources Section to the Environmental Division of the state Department of Transportation. The four-page, single-spaced document is promulgated over the signature block of Paul E. Davis, director of the TDEC Division of Water Pollution Control. It contains eight special conditions, eight general conditions and two mitigation conditions. Watson said the Corps permit, if and when it is issued, will contain conditions of its own. Here are some of the TDEC special conditions: • “Upon completion of the new spillway and spillway channel the existing channel and pond shall be filled and compressed to prevent further passage of water. The existing spillway structure shall remain.” • “There shall be no construction during the normal breeding season (Oct. 15-May 31) of endangered or protected Halieetus leucocephalus (Bald Eagle) in the vicinity (within 600 feet) of the project.” Here are some of the general conditions: • This permit does not authorize adverse impacts to cultural, historical or archeological features or sites.” • “Work shall not commence until the applicant has received the federal (Article) 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (an Article) 26a permit from the Tennessee Valley Authority or authorization under a Tennessee NPDES Storm Water Construction permit where necessary …” But Tammy Heise, TDEC information officer, said the 404 permit is necessary and the 26a permit is not. “This is standard language for this type of document. TDOT is perfectly aware of its permit responsibilities for this project,” she said. And these mitigation conditions: • “Mitigation of the streams impacted by this project shall be conducted on-site through restoration of 3,545 feet of open channel creating a final channel length of 4,045 feet. The existing Running Reelfoot Bayou from the existing spillway to the tie-in with the new spillway shall not be altered and shall continue to receive water.” • “… The mitigation area shall be planted with local wetland tree species with a survivorship of 85 percent over five years. Annual monitoring reports shall be submitted to (this division) by Oct. 31 of each year following the first growing season. …” Eagle nests Ms. Heise said there is an abandoned eagle nest 600 yards west of the site where a new spillway would be built. Even though the nest is abandoned, construction could be stopped if a pair of eagles decide to move in and set up housekeeping. “Under the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act, this nest must be acknowledged and protected should the eagles decide to re-habituate,” Ms. Heise said. Randy Cook, manager of Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, said he knows the nest very well. “It was built in 2005. The eagles didn’t use it that year, though,” he said. “They used it in 2006. It produced one fledging. It was not used in 2007 and it has not been used this year. Of the last five years, it’s been used one time.” Cook said that although the American Bald Eagle has been removed from the federal endangered species list, it remains on the “protected” list. Published in The Messenger 7.25.08

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