July 9, 2008

EPA Raises Concerns About Bridge

By Erik Robinson, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jul. 9--Critics of a new Columbia River crossing have long argued that a planned replacement bridge on Interstate 5 will degrade the environment and fuel more urban sprawl.

Now, federal environmental regulators are echoing many of those same concerns -- plus a new one.

The Environmental Protection Agency called for project officials to assure that bridge footings drilled deep into the river bottom won't pollute Clark County's major underground drinking-water aquifer. The EPA's written comments came in formal written comments on the project's draft environmental impact statement.

"The project has lots of positive aspects to it," said Christine Reichgott, an EPA manager who reviewed the bridge proposal. "We just want to make sure that we're moving forward with the best, environmentally sound project."

Crossing officials say none of the concerns are insurmountable, and they expect the project's final environmental assessment will adequately address EPA's concerns.

"These are things we need to address in the (Final Environmental Impact Statement)," said Heather Gundersen, environmental manager for the bi-state Columbia River Crossing office in Vancouver. "If it was a deal-breaker, they would have given us a rating that was basically unacceptable."

Yet the EPA's concern does add a new layer of complexity to a $3.5 billion project.

"The holes that the pilings make could create flow-paths for groundwater," said Martha Lentz, an EPA hydrogeologist in Seattle. "Contamination could flow either horizontally or vertically down into other groundwater units."

Two years ago, the agency acted on a petition by local environmental groups and designated the Troutdale aquifer as a "sole source" -- according it a higher level of environmental scrutiny. It is the primary drinking-water source for about 310,000 people in Clark County, Lentz said.

It is also "highly permeable," according to EPA's 2006 designation.

EPA officials said they don't know of existing pollution in the river bottom where the bridge is currently planned. However, they don't want to take any chances of mobilizing nearby plumes of tainted groundwater by driving pilings deep into the river bottom. For example, the Port of Vancouver is in the midst of a long-term cleanup of groundwater fouled by an industrial solvent in the Fruit Valley neighborhood.

"The entire county depends upon this vulnerable aquifer for our potable water supply, and it is already endangered because of groundwater contamination," said Dvija Michael Bertish, a Vancouver environmental activist who is tracking this issue.

Project engineers say they'll need to drive bridge footings at least 200 feet into the river bottom to reach seismically stable gravels from the middle of the river to its southern bank. (The same stable soils are only 50 to 60 feet deep on the Washington side of the river).

Engineers will take the aquifer into account as they refine the bridge's design, said Lynn Rust, deputy project director for the crossing staff.

"We're aware of the sole-source aquifer," Rust said. "But we're very early in the process."

Besides the concern about groundwater, the EPA called for federal transit authorities overseeing the project to provide more information about other issues:

--More analysis of air quality and health effects for people living near the freeway, with particular attention to the potential of disproportionately affecting low-income and minority populations living near the freeway. --More information about permanent increases in stormwater runoff and construction-related impacts to water quality. --Finally, the agency called for more scrutiny of how a new 12-lane bridge with light rail might fuel urban sprawl in Clark County. "We think more work is needed to evaluate the travel and land use change that would be stimulated ... and their associated impacts upon air, water, and land resources, as well as their socio-economic and human health effects."


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