DOT fined for failing to protect salmon habitat

May 11, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

The state Department of Ecology fined the state Department of Transportation $11,000 last week after environmental officials said the transportation agency failed to take steps to protect Tibbetts Creek salmon habitat.

Officials at both agencies said no habitat damage occurred as a result of the infraction. Crews did not maintain fencing along state Route 900 to keep dirt and silt from entering Tibbetts Creek and tributary streams — habitat for several salmon species and steelhead trout. Silt can damage fish gills, settle into streambed gravel and damage sensitive habitat.

The fabric silt fence set up along the construction site traps mud, but allows water to pass through. Rules require the bottom of the fence to be anchored in the soil, but a Department of Ecology inspector found loose edges three times between last September and February along the mile-long construction project.

Jamie Holter, a DOT spokeswoman, said the fencing becomes loose due to rain and wind. Crews fixed each incident documented by the Department of Ecology within hours, Holter said.

Transportation officials could appeal the penalty to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board or the Department of Ecology.

The widening project has not recorded any other Department of Ecology infractions since work started on the last stretch in August 2008.

“WSDOT takes water quality seriously and we make every effort to routinely repair and secure our silt fencing,” Lorena Eng, DOT regional administrator, said in a statement. “WSDOT believes that there was no harm to the environment or nearby sensitive areas as a result of the maintenance.”

Transportation officials will also discuss the situation with the state Route 900 project contractor, Icon Materials, a Kent company with a specialty in highway construction. Holter said the agency did not plan to shift the blame to the contractor.

“We’re not going to throw the contractor under the bus,” she added.

Larry Altose, a Department of Ecology spokesman, said the silt fencing serves as a line of defense for creeks. The department regulates storm water discharge for construction projects through permits, and then conducts regular inspections and maintenance to prevent polluted runoff from entering waterways.

“Protective measures, like silt fences, only work if they are properly maintained,” Kevin Fitzpatrick, a regional water quality supervisor for the environmental agency, said in a statement. “We’re issuing this fine to reinforce with WSDOT that regular inspection and repair of storm water controls is basic to all construction and can never be overlooked.”

Environmental officials imposed the fine as crews near completion of a $33.9 million effort to widen the roadway. The transportation agency opened almost a mile of widened lanes between Southeast 82nd Street and Newport Way Northwest last month. The stretch carries about 16,000 vehicles per day.

The project added a sidewalk and a bike lane to the corridor as well.

The widening project also included steps to improve fish passages through culverts at Tibbetts and Clay Pit creeks. Crews replaced broken culverts with modern passages lined with streambed gravel.

“As an agency, we do a lot of water work and we take it very seriously,” Holter said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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