Friday, December 25, 2009

Washington County residents eventually will come to appreciate stronger stormwater rules, but county officials look only at current road-building projects

Getting Rock Costly


By Scott F Davis

Thursday, December 24, 2009

FAYETTEVILLE — The gravel used to smooth roads on the east side of Washington County makes a long journey before county crews lay it down.

Mined from the county-operated quarry along Arkansas 45 near Morrow, the gravel used to the east is trucked to and stockpiled at the Washington County Road Department in south Fayetteville. County officials say there’s a better — and less expensive — way to give county residents the roads they deserve.

But standing between the county and its need for more, and more affordable, gravel for the east side is a legal dispute in Little Rock. There, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s changes to how it issues stormwater permits is meeting resistance from a nonprofit group of businesses and industries that deal with state regulations every day.

Meanwhile, a crushed limestone quarry east of Elkins former County Judge Jerry Hunton leased for 10 years for $300,000 sits idle, awaiting a stormwater discharge permit from the state agency.

In December 2008, the county signed the lease with Earl and Gayle Fochtman to remove an estimated 400,000 tons of crushed limestone from the Fochtman’s property in the Tuttle community.

But the county has extracted no gravel. The state has stopped renewing permits in the wake of a challenge to its permit process, and the general stormwater permit the county held expired in November 2008. It continues to operate with state permission under its expired permit until the dispute is resolved.

That permit covers continued operation in Morrow, but since the Fochtman quarry is new, it’s not covered by the prior permit and cannot be opened.

“The government has shut us down,” said County Judge Marilyn Edwards. “We’ve got to have a place to be able to mine gravel so we can build roads.”

County road officials say it’s impractical to haul rock all the way from Morrow on a routine basis for roads on the east because it increases fuel and personnel cost. Buying from private gravel quarries, they say, is too expensive, especially in lean budget times.

For Edwards, the quarry quandary is frustrating when she hears frequent complaints about roads and requests for gravel from residents on the east side.

Six Month Wait

The county has submitted a new permit application for an individual stormwater permit for the Fochtman property, but the approval process on those takes much longer.

Edwards said she’s spoken to Department of Environmental Quality officials who have promised to move the process along, but the county still faces a wait of three to six months.

The approval time for an industrial permit was typically a week or two, while the individual permits may take between three to six months, said Jamal Solaimanian, an engineering supervisor with the state agency’s water division.

Russell McLaren of GBMc(cq’d) and Associates, which prepared the county’s individual permit application, said he expects a draft permit to be issued within 30 to 60 days, followed by a 30-day comment period. After comments are addressed, the final permit will be issued, he explained.

Ready To Go

The county got a bargain when it purchased a portable crusher in a federal surplus sale in 2006 and the Road Department is eager to get it working to bring some much-needed relief on the east side, said Shawn Shrum, assistant road superintendent.

“We’re really wanting to get this going on the east side,” said Shrum “On that east side, it’s so hard — hauling from Morrow is too far and if you try to buy it, you can’t afford it.”

On a few projects on the far east side of the county, the department has purchased gravel from nearby private quarries because it was more affordable than hauling gravel from the west, he said.

Permit Problems

The county is caught in a dispute between the Arkansas Environmental Federation, a 350-member nonprofit organization representing regulated businesses, and the Department of Environmental Quality. At issue is how far the state can go in changing permit requirements and criteria without going through a detailed rule-making process that includes public hearings.

The Arkansas Environmental Federation objected in June to the agency’s proposed changes to its industrial permits. As a result, the agency is not issuing permits and is allowing those with expired permits to continue under their old permit, officials said.

“We felt like this one was such a dramatic change,” said Randy Thurman, executive director for the federation. “They moved to a much more stringent permit. They had failed to make a case for those changes.

The agency’s changes affect about 2,000 facilities across the state, prompting the federation to object.

“We feel like we have to do it because it’s such a significant change and it looks and feels like a rule,” Thurman said.

Changing rules in the state requires a far more complicated process than the permit modification the Department of Environmental Quality says it has undertaken.

The federation’s appeal went before an administrative hearing officer in November. A finding from that hearing has not yet been issued, officials said.

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the state agency, said the department reviews the permits every five years and the recent changes were made to comply with revised federal stormwater guidelines.

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