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Enviros Challenge Permit for I-69 Bridges Project

Wed May 11, 2011 - Midwest Edition

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Environmentalists are challenging a state permit for the Interstate 69 extension project, arguing that it was unlawfully issued and that the series of bridges it authorizes along the new highway will worsen flooding in nearly 6,000 acres of southwestern Indiana by using cost-cutting designs.

The Hoosier Environmental Council, a longtime opponent of the $3 billion, 142-mi. (228 km) highway that’s under construction between Evansville and Indianapolis, wants an administrative law judge to overturn the permit, which was issued in March by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The Indianapolis-based group contends DNR exceeded its authority in issuing the I-69 permit because it allows the bridges to be built in stages. It also argues that the permit runs contrary to state law because it was issued before the state Department of Transportation had secured flood easements — or financial settlements — with the dozens of landowners whose property would be affected by the increased flooding.

Tim Maloney, the group’s senior policy director, said residents near the planned bridges were surprised in late 2010 when they learned that the three sets of twin bridges traversing the East Fork of the White River and two tributaries would not be elevated on pylons across the entire flood plain. Such a design would allow floodwaters to flow under the crossings during flood events.

Instead, the design calls for only about one-sixth of the highway’s crossing to be on pylons. The remainder would run along 25-ft. (7.6 m) tall causeways built from fill material and spanning about 2 mi. (3.2 km) of the flood-plain, Maloney said.

“These new bridges will act like a dam across the flood plain — it’s going to make the flooding a lot worse,” he said.

INDOT documents show that those causeways will worsen flooding in about 5,800 acres within the flood-plain once the bridges are in place along the Pike and Daviess county line near Washington, Ind. The project would raise flood levels up to about a foot higher than they currently are in the area about 100 mi. southwest of Indianapolis, those documents indicate.

Maloney said the narrowed openings between the causeways where the water would be able to flow would worsen erosion by sending water coursing downstream faster than it currently does during flood events and could even eat away at the causeway itself.

“The impacts are potentially dramatic and they’re all impacts that were never fully studied or disclosed to the public or the people who are affected,” Maloney said.

He said an administrative law judge for the Indiana Natural Resources Commission will hold a May 16 hearing on the group’s challenge, which was filed in late April.

Officials with the DNR and INDOT declined to comment, saying their policy is not to discuss pending litigation.

INDOT spokeswoman Cher Elliott said she was unable to provide details on the number of landowners who would be affected by the increased flooding — homeowners the agency must reach a financial settlement with under the flood easement process.

“There’s nothing we’re trying to hide, but because it’s under litigation we have parameters of what can be released,” she said.

Elliott said INDOT awarded a $14.9 million contract for the bridges’ construction to Force Construction Co., of Columbus, Ind., last year. Maloney said that contract is for a portion of the bridges project.

One of the residents named in the environmental group’s petition is Jim Gillooly, who owns about 280 acres in the river’s flood plain near the city of Washington. He said much of that land is rich and highly productive cropland that would be harmed by the higher flooding as the waters rise higher and stay longer on that land.

“This has the potential to turn our good farmland into a wetland — that’s just exactly what the potential of this is,” Gillooly said.

Gov. Mitch Daniels said last year that INDOT would use “innovative techniques to design and build the road" and that the state could save money by narrowing the highway’s median or using a thinner layer of pavement.

Maloney said the state has been cutting corners to lower the highway’s cost to free up more money to build more of the route. He said construction crews are using thinner pavement, fewer interchanges, narrower medians and steeper grades in hilly areas that he said could increase road safety problems in those areas. Maloney said the bridges’ project will directly impact nearby residents.

“Unfortunately, those savings come at the expense of the men and women who make a living farming those river bottoms,” he said. “Moreover, the highway will harm a diverse river system.”

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