Special Reports

Bridge builder, agency fined

The state has fined builders of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge $10,000 for failing to control stormwater at their construction site.

The Department of Ecology announced Tuesday it is penalizing Tacoma Narrows Constructors and the state Department of Transportation for what it called "an ongoing pattern of uncontrolled stormwater discharges."

"We pointed out these pollution problems for four months during our site inspections and phone calls, but the discharges were not fixed," said Melodie Selby, who manages the Ecology Department's stormwater program

Uncontrolled stormwater causes environmental problems because it brings erosion and carries pollution downstream. Muddy water can harm aquatic life, clog fish gills and alter pH balance.

Several steps have been taken to fix the problems, said representatives of TNC and the Transportation Department.

Among them are better and more frequent monitoring, better erosion control, more staff time devoted to environmental practices and more emphasis on training.

"We're taking this very seriously, and we're making a lot of efforts to improve conditions out there," said Linea Laird, the Transportation Department's manager of the Narrows project.

"This is not a situation we like to be in, and it's not a situation the Department of Ecology wants to be in."

The most spectacular incident at the construction site took place Oct. 20, after a record-setting rainstorm that dropped 5.5 inches in 24 hours.

Muddy water overwhelmed TNC's settling ponds and temporary drainage systems, flooding across Highway 16 and cascading down steep slopes to the Narrows.

Despite an all-night effort by TNC to control the runoff, a torrent of muddy water carved out a ravine just north of the existing bridge, depositing an estimated 2,000 cubic yards of dirt on the beach and threatening houses on the bluff above.

The Ecology Department stressed that the fine was not for that incident alone, but a pattern of failures.

"The focus of our concern is an ongoing pattern of noncompliance," said Leslie Thorpe, an Ecology Department spokeswoman.

"The storm was unusual. The contractor did contribute to that washout, but we didn't want to get into the situation of having to determine how much of the discharge was unavoidable due to the nature of the storm."

Thorpe said the bridge builder also failed to keep some areas of exposed soil covered and failed to make sure trucks going from the site to paved roadways did not track mud onto the road.

More seriously, she said, the state and TNC failed to report at least one discharge.

"The Clean Water Act is based on self-reporting," Thorpe said. "Without notification, the state can't respond in a timely manner."

The charge of failing to report stemmed from a single incident in which bridge crews were unaware that a violation had taken place, said Bill Elliott, the Transportation Department's civil design reviewer for the bridge project.

On the morning of Nov. 20, he said, workers arrived on the job to find that a coupling on a 2-inch line carrying potable water had broken during the night. Because the hose was spilling clean water, Elliott said, the workers didn't think the event needed to be reported.

Ecology inspectors viewed the incident as a violation because, even though the water was clean, it caused erosion on the steep bank and on the beach.

Thorpe said sediment erosion control measures were not in place or inadequate during four site inspections between October and December.

And, she said, some tests in November showed more than the allowable pH and turbidity.

In addition to sharing the fine, the Transportation Department and the contractor each received separate orders from the Ecology Department with deadlines to make corrections.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693