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Dam project remains stalled

by Alan Lewis Gerstenecker
| July 23, 2013 1:32 PM

Because of a federal permitting snafu, the Libby Flower Creek Dam project is all but stalled until next year. 

Tim Bodurtha, with the Kalispell office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, provided a ray of hope last week when he said Libby Mayor Doug Roll needed to exercise a declaration of emergency status and the agency could allow the city to proceed as it awaits the permit, which could take another 90 to 120 days.

"It's something the mayor must do. It's in his court," Bodurtha said. 

Roll, however, said an emergency declaration would be useless at this point because the money that was going to be used to pay for the dam project has been redirected to infrastructure projects in other communities.

"We knew about this two weeks ago, and we pursued it," Roll said. "The problem is, the funding -- the Rural Development loans -- have gone to someone else."

Essentially, the strategy Bodurtha endorsed came too late to help the city, Roll said.

Daniel Johnson, the U.S. Department of Rural Development representative who attended funding meetings with city officials, confirmed the money sought by Libby for the project had been forward to another entity.

While further work on the dam seems all but stalled, the city is moving forward on water-main distribution repairs. In all, the city was to receive funds from Rural Development totaling nearly $13 million for the dam and main projects, a little more than $8 million for the dam. By all accounts, additional money for the dam project will be available next year.

Roll announced in early June that the dam project was in jeopardy due to the lack of a federal permit that hinges on the results of a study to gauge the potential effects on endangered bull trout and grizzly bears. Since then, several city officials, including Roll, have placed the blame on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

For nearly 15 months, the city and its engineering contractor Morrison-Mairle were under the impression that building a new dam 85 feet away from the existing dam would not effect the native species that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. An email dated Feb. 28. 2012, from Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Mark Wilson to Morrison Mairle engineer Paul Burnham, seems to confirm that. 

“Hi Paul: I looked over the Flower Creek Dam Replacement Project outline you e-mailed to me. Although the threatened grizzly bear and bull trout both occur in proximity to the project area, we believe that the nature of the project and the semi-urban setting location for the proposed work will prevent this project from resulting any significant adverse effects to threatened or endangered species, or other fish, wildlife and habitat resources under the purview of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,” Wilson wrote. “Let me know if you need anything else from us relative to this project.”

Since that correspondence, Wilson has retired from the Fish and Wildlife office in Helena. 

Larry Lockard, the Fish and Wildlife field supervisor in Kalispell, had a different perspective on the dam project after he took over for Wilson. And on May 22, Roll received an email stating that Lockard may require the city to complete the permit process for the bull trout and grizzly bears. 

“May 22 was the first we heard we needed a permit on this,” Libby City Administrator Jim Hammons said. “The city is not at fault here.”

The city may not have heard about the permitting problems until May 22, but officials with multiple federal agencies realized at least a week earlier that there was no permit for the dam project. E-mails obtained by The Western News indicate that officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were the first to recognize the problem. 

Stephen Potts, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s NEPA compliance and review office in Helena, sent an e-mail on May 16 to a host of federal officials that outlined Lockard’s concerns with the dam project. 

“(Lockard) said the project would need to obtain a special use permit and a 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and perhaps other permits and authorizations,” Potts noted. “He is concerned about potential project effects on threatened bull trout, since Flower Creek is occupied bull trout habitat, and also noted that sediment transport downstream during dam construction /removal may be a concern to other fisheries and may also be of concern to the downstream Libby water treatment plant operations.”

Potts went on to write that he was unaware of the dam project. 

“I told Larry that his phone call was the first I had heard of this project, and that I had not seen any NEPA document for the project, and did not know if others within EPA were aware of the project (drinking water program, 404 permit review, etc.),” Potts noted. “I found some information on the dam at the City of Libby website.” 

Since sending that e-mail, Potts also has retired. 

Libby officials blame Lockard for the disruption, saying the dam on Flower Creek is deteriorating rapidly and poses a public danger. 

“Larry Lockard needs to answer to the people of Libby,” Roll said. 

Multiple calls to Lockard have not been returned.

“He hasn’t returned my calls either,” Roll said. 

Jodi Bush, director of Fish and Wildlife’s Helena office, also has not returned phone calls.

Morrison-Mairle has referred all questions pertaining to the dam project to City Hall.