Dallesport airport repair has rocky history
STAGE ONE LEVELING: Workers lay asphalt to the northern end of runway 12-30 at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport. The runway is being upgraded in load capacity and line-of-sight in a $5 million plus project.
The Columbia Gorge Regional Airport is in the opening phases of a much needed make-over. Time has taken a toll on the integrity of the main runway and with ambitious plans being laid for use of airport and neighboring property, the airport board has taken steps to make improvements. But a pending hearing by the Pollution Control Hearings Board could throw a monkey wrench into immediate plans.
There are many issues being raised about the work to rehabilitate runway 12-30 and the processes involved in getting the grant money and agency approval to do the work. On June 15, Dallesport resident Raymond Clough Jr. filed a notice of appeal with the Pollution Control Hearings Board challenging the Department of Ecology’s issuing of a construction storm water general permit to the airport for the rehabilitation work. In particular, Clough claimed that the permit application “contains numerous statements of fact that are not true.” Among those statements challenged by Clough are acres impacted (20 versus 40), lack of complete wetland delineation, potential for storm water to reach the Columbia River, and reference to a Categorical Exclusion Report that Clough claims is also inaccurate.
Clough says he is not opposed to the project, but he wants the permitting process to be completed in a thorough and accurate manner.
Due to prevailing winds, runway 12-30 gets more than 90 percent of the use, according to Chuck Covert, of Aeronautical Management Inc. (AMI), the company that operates the airport. The Board knew that the load capacity of the runways was fading, which was problematic because the FAA could restrict the type of aircraft that could use the runway if it didn’t meet load standards.
In July 2008 the airport board hired Precision Approach Engineering of Oregon to work on plans to improve the load capacity and correct a line-of-sight problem that exists on runway 12-30. There is a hump in the middle of each runway that restricts line-of-sight to just over half way from one end to the other. According to Covert, they actually had two planes heading towards each other from both ends of the runway in a recent incident. A company called Pavement Services was hired to test the runway in 2008. They presented their report to the airport board in January 2009, showing that the load capacity was 6,000 pounds, about half of what the board expected. What they needed was at least 30,000 pounds and would like to have 60,000 pound capacity.
An estimate of the cost to fix the problems of load and line-of-sight was in excess of $5 million. Discussions with the FAA indicated they could provide some support, but not nearly enough to do the whole project. In November 2009, The Dalles submitted a grant application to Connect Oregon III, a lottery backed fund that was issuing grants to transportation entities in Oregon. With ownership of the airport shared between The Dalles and Klickitat County since a formal agreement was signed in 2002, Klickitat County commissioner, David Sauter questioned the eligibility of the airport due to its location in Washington. Sauter, who represents the county on the airport board, says the granting agency determined the project was eligible. On Aug. 27, 2010, The Dalles received notice of grant approval for $3,503,184. In their application, The Dalles indicated they expected $2,472,000 which they said had been pledged by the FAA. However, at the time, the FAA was unable to commit an exact amount because funds were pending congressional approval.
In March 2010, Covert signed a Categorical Exclusion form which was completed by John Macklin, of David Evans and Associates, Inc. An approved exemption allows the project to proceed without a full NEPA review with environmental assessment or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The form wasn’t actually filed with the FAA until more than a year later in April 2011. Three months later the FAA signed the document saying they had received it the request which was subsequently approved.
The FAA signed a grant authorization for $2,372,009 in September 2011, more than a year after the Connect Oregon III grant was approved. Although the combined amount is still not enough to accomplish 100 percent of what was planned, it allows the upgrades that will satisfy FAA. Instead of completely flattening the runway for the line-of-sight issue, the FAA allowed the airport to change its taxiways to be parallel to the runway and make a 90 degree angle in the approach onto the runway. They will also raise the south end of the runway five feet, increasing the line-of-sight. The work also improves the lateral drainage of the runway.
In September 2011, Granite Construction was awarded the contract to do work on the runways and taxiways. The FAA acknowledgement of the project states that this is a two phase project. It includes construction of blast pads at each end of runway 12-30 and parallel taxiways at both ends. The statement suggests that FAA considers work on the north end of the runway, which includes the taxiway and increased thickness of asphalt to be phase I, supported by the FAA grant. The south end which also includes a parallel taxiway plus increasing thickness of asphalt on 1,472 feet of runway, and raising the south end to improve line-of-sight, is phase II and is funded by the Connect Oregon III grant.
In February 2012, Klickitat County Planning Department issued the MDNS pertaining to the airport project and storm water permit that deals with how the project might impact runoff both during and after construction. A “notice of intent” was also filed for a storm water permit.It took several revisions to get all the facts straight in the application, and three tries to get the proper person to sign off on the permit application . Clough questions why the application made no mention of the EIS completed by Sundoons Development. Sundoons is the golf course and housing project that was first proposed in 2007. It would include an 18-hole golf course and a variety of housing projects constructed over time. An EIS was completed by the Sundoons project in December 2010 and a final, supplemental EIS was completed in April 2011. The MDNS asks for a list of any environmental information that has been prepared. The only items listed in the MDNS are the Categorical Exclusion and a cultural resources study which was completed.
Another issue is wetlands. There are wetland areas at both ends of the runway. They are mentioned in the request for a storm water permit. Department of Ecology had to press Precision Approach Engineering Inc. for more information about construction runoff into the Columbia River or the wetlands. Eventually Ecology indicated they were satisfied that runoff would not go directly into the Columbia River and Rob Norton, the Project Manager for Precision Approach Engineering said workers would be instructed to divert runoff away from wetlands. Clough takes issue with the claim that runoff will not go to the Columbia River and has other issues about the wetlands. Clough says no delineation of the south wetlands was included, which is required before work can be done.
Accounting for the work, which is supposed to be kept separate per provisions of the Connect Oregon III grant, was also questioned by Clough as his requests to view those reports were not complete, according to Clough. Patrick Cooney, of ODOT, confirms that there was a complaint filed and ODOT sent a letter to the city of The Dalles requesting documentation of ownership and NEPA documents dealing with environmental issues. “We received all that we asked for by June 14,” says Cooney. “As far as our point of view, everything is proper as it should be.” Cooney says they were already aware of the location of the airport and joint ownership and their July report was complete.
Ecology was eventually satisfied with the details of the project and on March 9, 2012, the SEPA was finalized, and on May 16 Ecology granted the storm water permit. On May 24, the State Auditor informed Clough that they would not investigate his allegations but forwarded the information to the auditor to be considered during the next audit.
Construction began on May 21. The first task was to even the surface on the north end of the runway. The entire project is expected to be completed in October 2012.
The management at the airport is reluctant to address the concerns raised by Clough. When asked about the Categorical Exemption, Rolf Anderson, of AMI said he could not answer due to “potential litigation.” Anderson had the same response in regard to questions about the size of the project and wetlands.
The runway isn’t the only project in the works at the airport. On June 27, the board held ground-breaking ceremonies for a new maintenance hangar. Klickitat County loaned $250,000 to the airport for the project using sales tax refund money that is earmarked for the county to use for Economic Development. According to Sauter, the loan is over a 10-year period and is at a low interest rate. “It is money that we normally give away, so this is a good deal for the county,” he said. He added that the county and State funds are going toward the development of infrastructure at the airport in a business park that is being developed over 17 lots on the south side of the property. “It is 50 percent grant and 50 percent loan,” said Sauter. He went on to explain that part of the county’s recent financial problems is due to the low rate of return on investment dollars. He said it makes more sense to make loans for development projects that will pay back with a better rate of interest.
A public tour was given in June showing the area along the south end of the property designated for development. The board has received grant dollars to construct the road and utility infrastructure for the park. As soon as funds permit, the board will build a spec building for the site. The types of businesses they hope to attract will be aeronautical in nature. One current tenant, AAE is already developing an aircraft in an existing building at the airport.
In the meantime, the Pollution Control Hearings Board has scheduled their hearing for January 2013, long after the October expected completion date of the project. Clough has filed a motion to stay with the Department of Ecology and is asking for a stop work order and temporary suspension of Ecology’s construction storm water general permint, WAR-125811. The outcome of that action will be covered in a follow-up story in The Sentinel.