MIDDLEBURY — Preliminary conclusions drawn from a review of the work in the Middlebury River in East Middlebury after Tropical Storm Irene show that the town of Middlebury did not exceed the recommendations of state environmental officials, except in one instance.
Where they did go beyond a state engineer’s directions, town officials said they would restore damaged habitat.
“My own impression is that the town has acted responsibly once the problem was pointed out and they’ve been appropriately responsive,” said David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
A group of around 50 East Middlebury residents and concerned conservationists attended a meeting of the Middlebury selectboard last week to complain that the town overstepped its state authorization while conducting emergency repairs on the Middlebury River after Tropical Storm Irene. At the meeting, selectboard chair John Tenny assured that work in the river would halt until the concerns could be adequately put to rest.
In response to the allegations, the DEC (a division of the Agency of Natural Resources, or ANR) undertook a review of the project. Commissioner Mears told the Independent on Tuesday that preliminary findings show that work conducted on the stretch of river between the Lower Plains Bridge and the East Middlebury retaining wall at the Grist Mill Bridge was all authorized, including the dredging and channeling of that section. The only work that was unauthorized, he said, was some work downstream of the retaining wall.
“There was necessary and important work that needed to be done to ensure that the two bridges were not at risk and that the channels flowed under them safely without putting the structures at risk,” he said. “That work was authorized in accordance with instructions that (ANR) river engineer Chris Brunelle gave them. But then there was work on a stretch of river downstream from the bridges that was not authorized. That’s the work that we asked them to stop and they’ve agreed to remediate.”
Tenny said the town would work to restore habitat downstream of the Grist Mill Bridge.
“We had good habitat there before and to me that seems like a part of the overall restoration,” he said, on hearing of Mears’ preliminary findings. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t do that. So that’s what I’ll do and continue to do.”
WHY DREDGE THE RIVER
The original aim of the town’s work in the river was to fortify the Lower Plains Bridge, the Grist Mill Bridge and the retaining wall. In order to direct the river away from the retaining wall, Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner last week said the town needed to conduct streambed work between the two bridges.
Mears said the DEC would likely complete the review of the Middlebury River work in a month.
Tenny said the town would appreciate the state’s guidance as it proceeds with remedying this issue.
“We’re seeking the directions that ANR would be offering to go forward,” he said. “We want to have that clear and in hand before we determine what would be the appropriate next steps and we look forward to discussing next steps at our next meeting. But we do not have authorization or funding to go forward with any other steps as of yet.”
As part of the state’s review, engineer Brunelle — whom the Independent has repeatedly tried to reach — submitted a summary of what he authorized and what he saw on the ground. His supervisor Mike Kline reviewed that summary, went to the river site, and analyzed the work that was done versus what was authorized. Based on Kline’s analysis, Brunelle’s summary and the accounts of others, Mears has found that the town of Middlebury only overstepped its authorization when it did work downstream of the retaining wall.
“My sense is that the work proceeded considerably downstream from where we had authorized, it wasn’t just incidental work associated with the upstream work,” Mears said. “It was clearly a distinct effort to avoid having the river move to the (northern) channel … It’s not necessarily that the work never would have been authorized, but it clearly was not related to any imminent need to protect structures or the bridge. That was work that we would have asked them to apply for a normal permit and go through that process and not treat it as an emergency.”
Mears indicated that the town has been cooperative on this issue and that they’ve agreed to restore the section of river below the retaining wall. Due to the town’s willingness to work with the state, Mears doesn’t foresee any strong repercussions for the town.
“Based on what I know right now I’m leaning toward, at a minimum, issuing an order … that commits the town to doing what they’ve already agreed that they want to do,” he said.
Mears said that such an order would require the town to remediate the portion of river that was channeled without authorization and would likely call on the town to hire an engineer to assess the situation and create a proposal for how to proceed.
“I think this helps us have some good direction forward and I think we’ll want to look carefully at the work heading forward,” said Tenny. “At the same time, we don’t have any additional permits for any further restoration. I think this gives us some good basis on which to have some productive discussion at our Monday meeting as we begin to think about our steps forward.”
The Agency of Natural Resources provided the Addison Independent with a copy of their review thus far. It can be viewed by clicking on the file below. Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.