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Corps to review permit for pump

A floodgate controls water on Friday in Island County Diking District 1, which covers 743 acres. The gate is near the house for the district’s controversial pump below Useless Bay Golf Course. - Brian Kelly / The Record
A floodgate controls water on Friday in Island County Diking District 1, which covers 743 acres. The gate is near the house for the district’s controversial pump below Useless Bay Golf Course.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

Diking District 1’s controversial pump project will get a fresh look from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The $430,000 pump project has spawned two lawsuits from angry property owners and has divided the district’s board of commissioners.

Critics have complained for more than a year that the cost of the project has not been fairly spread out among property owners in the diking district, and opponents have also claimed the pump is draining sensitive wetlands next to Useless Bay that’s wildlife habitat.

On Thursday, the diking district received a certified letter from the Seattle District of the Corps of Engineers, informing diking officials that the verification for the district’s Nationwide Permit 3 for the pump project was suspended.

Corps of Engineers officials said the suspension will last until the Corps decides whether or not the permit should be revoked.

Diking commissioner Ray Gabelein said Friday the district will continue to operate the pump until the permitting issue is resolved.

He said the diking district gave the correct information for the project to Island County officials, who handled the permit applications to the Corps.

Gabelein, who will continue as the district’s representative in future dealings with the Corps, said the federal agency signed off on the project during a visit to the site this past spring.

“They said it was built exactly as we proposed,” he said.

“I don’t know how things got misinterpreted at the Corps level,” Gabelein added. “They seem to be admitting that if there’s a problem, they caused it.”

He said the Corps apparently took another look at the permit paperwork after “receiving complaints from people in the district that aren’t based in fact.”

Michelle Walker, regulatory branch chief for the Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said the suspension was necessary because it appeared that a Nationwide Permit 3, or NWP3, was not the proper permit for the project — though the Corps’ original interpretation of the information provided made it seem like the right choice.

Such a suspension is rare, she added.

“We don’t do this very often,” Walker said.

A NWP3 is typically granted for work that is done to repair, rehabilitate or replace projects that have been previously approved, Walker explained. The Corps had previously understood the NWP3 would be granted so the diking district could do maintenance on an existing pump station.

The diking district received its NWP3 in July 2007, and that permit covered the replacement with a 24-inch culvert with another culvert half its size, and the replacement of a 1,400 gallon-per-minute pump with a slightly larger one. It also allowed the installation of the district’s controversial 6,000 gallon-per-minute pump, as well as the construction of a new pump house at Deer Lagoon.

“When we relooked at the information with a fresh set of eyes, we were able to see that it was more than just maintenance,” Walker said.

Despite the suspension, the Corps said the diking district will still be able to use the new pump while the federal review is under way.

In the letter to the diking district, Walker said it was likely the Corps will ask the diking district to submit an operating plan for the pumping station for the winter 2009-10 season for approval.

The diking district was given 10 days to submit information on the pump project before the Corps decides whether the permit should be reinstated, modified or revoked.

If the permit is revoked, the diking district will need to seek an “after-the-fact individual permit” so the pump station project can be authorized.

Walker said that Corps officials visited the district’s pump project in March.

“When we did that site visit, we saw that they built the project exactly as authorized,” she said, adding that what had changed was the Corps’ understanding of the project.

Meanwhile, Gabelein said that until the permit issue is resolved, “we’re just keeping the district moving forward in a positive direction.”

He said the pumping system continued to operate smoothly during recent periods of heavy precipitation.

“We had a good stretch of rain, but we’ve pretty much caught up,” Gabelein said of the system. “It’s working exactly as it was designed to do. The engineers did a good job.”

Record writer Roy Jacobson contributed to this story.

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