’Muddy 98’ Offers Alabama DOT an Environmental Lesson

Tue April 22, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Garry Mitchell - ASSOCIATED PRESS



MOBILE, Ala. (AP) U.S. Highway 98, known as “Bloody 98” for its history of fatal crashes on a stretch from Mobile to the Mississippi border, has been called “Muddy 98” since state highway officials got mired in environmental foulups last year.

Department of Transportation Director Joe McInnes, who previously apologized for the muddy runoff from a section of the project, said March 20 it had been used to improve DOT’s oversight of environmental issues on road work statewide.

But he said the runoff was not an environmental disaster.

“It’s just muddy water. It’s not Bhopaul or the Exxon Valdez,” McInnes said after briefing the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s transportation coalition. He was referring to the 1984 chemical disaster in India and the infamous oil tanker leak in Alaska.

Muddy runoff from the U.S. 98 work flowed into nearby waterways and halted the 8-mi. (12.9 km) project in September. The waterways included Big Creek Lake — the source of Mobile’s water supply — and the Escatawpa River.

The project, including another 4.7 mi. (7.6 km) bringing it into west Mobile, is estimated to cost $85 million to $100 million. For years, people living near the busy highway have called it “Bloody 98” and complained the two-lane road needed widening to end deadly crashes. DOT officials have refused to release the actual fatality count on the highway, citing advice from the department’s legal counsel.

Highway work resumed in January, but DOT still faces lawsuits by the state attorney general’s office and the Mobile water and sewer system for alleged water pollution.

DOT officials admitted they were unaware of the muddy runoff until it was reported last year by the Press-Register.

Officials had no estimate of the amount of runoff that reached Big Creek Lake, but they said they have a contingency plan if there is a repeat runoff.

DOT officials said they have learned a lesson from the project that’s being applied statewide and that’s strict compliance with department rules on environmental protection. All nine of DOT’s stormwater coordinators statewide were brought to the U.S. 98 site to inspect the roadway.

McInnes said the environmental problems have been corrected and the project now is in full compliance with environmental rules and regulations.

“We’re going to do our homework on every job,” he promised.

As a result of “Muddy 98,” DOT now requires vigorous checkups on its road projects for environmental compliance that include weekly inspections.

Roads alongside Highway 98 being used to haul materials have been covered with gravel. Construction crews have been instructed on “clean water in, clean water out” techniques of protecting waterways at risk during construction.

Transportation officials delivered that message to about 200 people at a public hearing on the road work recently in Wilmer.

“We’ve got to do a better job of listening at every level,” said Buddy Cox of Montgomery, DOT’s state geotechnical engineer. A Web site, www.safe98.org, has been created.

Casi Callaway, director of Mobile Baykeeper, said her environmental group is considering filing its own lawsuit, alleging DOT neglected to perform an Environmental Impact Statement before starting work. McInnes said an EIS wasn’t required and federal authorities had given approval for the project.