The Utah Department of Transportation must tear out a section of pricey new highway in Provo Canyon because it's too close to the pristine Provo River.
As part of a settlement with two environmental groups, UDOT must maintain an eight-foot buffer zone between the river and U.S. 189 and remove anything built too close to the water. It also will pay at least $140,000 for violating permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Division of Water Quality. The lion's share of the fine - $126,000 - will go to The Nature Conservancy for a river restoration project; the remainder to the federal government.The Provo River Coalition and the American Canoe Association sent UDOT a letter of intent to sue after discovering construction crews had apparently done some ill-conceived work last fall. After months of negotiations, UDOT signed a consent decree approved by a federal judge mandating it comply with the permits.
"I think they're realizing this is a project that has not gone well," said Julie Mack, a member of the Provo River Coalition and environmental specialist at Sundance. "I still don't understand how they could have built those two lanes too close to the river when they had room."
UDOT will realign 1,000 feet of the new road between Vivian Park and Frazier Park to pull a 150-foot section closer to the mountainside. The additional work will tack another $130,000 on to the two-mile-long project, including a pair of tunnels, estimated to cost $37 million.
Mack called the settlement an important victory, although environmentalists aren't exulting given the many other problems they see with the project.
But Jeff Baird, UDOT project manager, said it wasn't the environmental groups that compelled transportation officials to change the highway.
"They did not force us into doing this. These things were going to be done all along," he said.
It was the Corps of Engineers that found UDOT in violation of the wetlands permit, and the department worked with the federal agency to redesign the road, Baird said. UDOT, he said, signed the consent decree "to keep us out of court."
There's no question in Sundance owner Robert Redford's mind that environmentalists played a large role.
"It is extremely frustrating that legal action was needed to simply force UDOT to comply with their own permits," he said in a prepared statement. "It is unfortunate that after 30 years of warning that four lanes simply will not fit in this narrow, geologically sensitive canyon, that the very problems we anticipated have actually come to pass."
Mack said she hopes UDOT officials don't "moan and groan" about having to rebuild part of the highway. "It was their mistake," she said.
"I guess you could say they were mistakes," Baird said. "I think it would be more appropriate to call it miscommunication or misunderstanding."
Basically, he said, it came down to a difference of opinion between the Corps and UDOT in the meaning of the wetlands permit.
Although that matter appears resolved, the state Division of Water Quality isn't finished dealing with UDOT.
The water quality division assessed UDOT $78,500 for failing to adequately channel construction site runoff away from the river. Don Ostler, division director, said part of the fine was rolled into the settlement with the environmental groups, but it's not completely satisfied.
The two state agencies are negotiating a final sum, he said.
UDOT has since put into practice a storm-water management plan, Ostler said.
The four-lane highway will be open this fall, Baird said. Wetlands mitigation and work on mountainside retaining walls will continue for a time after that.