In last week's edition of the Chinook Observer, Richard Sjolander, the Regional Operations Manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT), responded to a letter written by Rob Waltemate regarding a DOT culvert on Highway 103 near Breakers Lake.
The culvert in question was installed several years ago by the DOT within Highway 103 right-of-way in order to alleviate flooding of the highway during winter storm events. After installation, the culvert was immediately "plugged" by DOT due to the "threat" of a lawsuit by an oyster grower concerned about the impacts of downstream run off into Willapa Bay over a mile away.
Due to this "blockage" the highway has experienced continual flooding during the winter months and has been the site of several near tragic accidents. The county has repeatedly requested that the culvert be allowed to operate as designed and installed to protect the public safety on 103, but all requests have been denied by DOT.
Mr. Sjolander's letter is a good example of the misguided policy and flat-out idiocy of the current DOT position. Several statements in that letter deserve rebuttal:
Mr. Sjolander's statement that the DOT was "prohibited from opening the culvert" is simply a misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, DOT chose not to open the culvert to avoid a threat of litigation. While this is within their authority, the liability of an easily avoided traffic fatality (or fatalities) would seem to be much more significant.
Mr. Sjolander also states that he "has no answer" to the question of pollutants. While this may be true, I would like to know how the project permits were issued without this information. If the county or a member of the general public proposes a project such as this, a full analysis of the downstream impacts is required prior to permit issuance. This information should be available if the project was legally permitted.
Mr. Sjolander states his goal is to be a good steward of the taxpayer dollar. Does spending tens of thousands of dollars on this project and then plugging it meet that goal? He also states that if the county would indemnify the DOT then they would open the culvert. Apparently he forgets that the county also operates on tax dollars and that we are limited by law on our ability to operate outside our own county rights of way. This is simply Mr. Sjolander's way of passing the buck instead of doing his job.
Another statement by Mr. Sjolander refers to the injustice it would create to waste precious taxpayer dollars without protection from litigation. If that were DOT policy, there would be few if any projects ever constructed. I was witness to several threats of litigation when DOT proposed to waste millions of dollars to raise the highway outside of South Bend. That boondoggle went forward anyway in spite of litigation threats, community opposition, and questionable benefit. I guess it is worth the risk of litigation to enhance habitat but not worth it to save human lives. I would like to assure Mr. Sjolander that when an accident does occur at this location, I will be the first one on the stand to testify for the victim!
Mr. Sjolander states that "sadly, to date we have not received a reply to our request" for the county to indemnify DOT. It must be said that the county has made verbal requests for years to open this culvert and been rebuffed. In February of this year, DOT asked that we put the request in writing. We sent this requested letter on Feb. 14. We received a response from Mr. Sjolander over three months later on June 5 demanding indemnification from the county in order to open the culvert. We in fact, have not yet formally replied but Mr. Sjolander knows that we would be unable to meet his demands due not only to legal reasons, but also restrictions on the ability of our insurance policy to cover DOT property. Again, he is trying to pass the blame instead of doing his job.
In closing, it needs to be said that we have generally had a good working relationship with DOT, especially our local managers and crews who have always gone out of their way to work with the county. In this instance however, Mr. Sjolander has not only been uncooperative, but has misstated the facts in an effort to justify his actions. Mr. Waltemate's letter was right on target, while Mr. Sjolander's response is nothing more than the south-end droppings of a north-bound bull.
Pacific County Board of Commissioners