Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TREE-FOR-ALL: Tree clearing, conflict of interest charges cloud Council move

Sewer project with major ramifications may be marred by conflicts of interest, parties claim. Part One
COLUMBIA, 3/22/11  (Beat Byte) -- A project to extend sewer lines near the Upper Hinkson Creek approved by Columbia City Council members last month has concerned parties crying foul over massive tree clearing proposed to accomodate the new lines, and a potential conflict of interest that makes City Hall look too cozy with a local engineering firm. 
"My father was quite disappointed as far as how the vote went, given the environmental destruction the City caused to his farm on the earlier phase of this sewer project," said Bruce Alspaugh, whose family owns land in the sewer's path.  He was also concerned that his family's best interests may not be well served by the engineer hired to design the sewer line. 
"The sewer line is supposed to serve the Ewing Industrial development, where REDI (Regional Economic Development) is trying to attract a data center," Alspaugh told the Columbia Heart Beat.  "However, the vice-president of Allstate Consultants, Chad Sayre, is also an investor in Ewing.  His company got a no-bid contract to design the sewer line to service a development that he is an investor in." 

No-bid contracts are unusual in government work, which normally requires competitive bidding from several vendors.  Sayre's firm, Allstate Consultants, submitted the sewer project's plans and drawings to the Columbia City Council under contract to the city.   His other firm, Grindstone Investments, is a major investor in the Ewing project the sewer would serve. 
Concerned the city's proposal to remove 200 feet of trees on either side of the Hinkson Creek -- 400 feet total -- to accomodate the sewer would destabilize the creek, increasing sediment levels, runoff, and water temperature, John Alspaugh -- one of 14 landowners whose property is included in a list of easements the city will acquire and Bruce Alspaugh's father -- addressed Council members Feb. 21.   
Repeatedly referencing an EPA document urging tree preservation along the Hinkson Creek's banks, Alspaugh invited Council members to visit an area similarly cleared for sewer lines off Highway 63 near Vandiver.  "You'll notice there is a gap of about 200 feet -- a 200 foot gap! -- where all of the trees are removed on the creek banks," Alspaugh said.  "I would like you to look at the environmental damage and think about the fact that we will be doing six more, close to a half a mile along the creek bank, to construct these [sewer lines]." 

Alspaugh warned that given the damage, EPA could issue another TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) requirement for the Upper Hinkson Creek of the sort City Hall is now fighting in the Lower Hinkson Creek.  "Do we want to risk doing this project and making ourselves vulnerable to another TMDL?" Alspaugh asked.

Admitting to the possibility of environmental damage, public works director John Glascock suggested mitigating alternatives.  He was reluctant to commit to planting anything over the sewer's path, however, for fear roots would ultimately enter the lines "and I'd be there digging them up."
Despite the concerns, Council members unanimously approved the project. 
"This whole issue is premature.  Why rip out trees along Hinkson Creek when that will only add to the stormwater runoff TMDL problem?"  Sierra Club advocate and Columbia Tribune columnist Ken Midkiff emailed City Council members, also condemning the no-bid contracts with Sayre and Allstate.  "This whole thing reeks!" 

PART 2:  Other voices weigh in

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