Save the Illinois River, Inc.
24369 E 757 Rd.
Tahlequah, OK 74464-1949
(918) 284-9440

[Archived] EPA joins inquiry into illegal dam in state

| News | January 05, 2013

By ROD WALTON World Staff Writer



The dam was built this year on Barren Fork Creek, a designated scenic waterway in Adair County.

TAHLEQUAH -- The federal Environmental Protection Agency has jumped into an investigation that is seeking anyone who's involved with building an illegal dam on one of Oklahoma's state-designated scenic waterways, authorities said Wednesday.

The dam was built sometime this year on a stretch of the Barren Fork Creek in Adair County. The Barren Fork eventually flows into the Illinois River, which also is overseen by the Tahlequah-based Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

Ed Fite, the commission's administrator, is happy that federal and state officials are ready to level the dam and penalize whoever built it.

Fines could reach as high as $35,000 a day as long as the dam is in place, he said.

"If I were the responsible individual, I'd be telling what I know right now," Fite said. "It's going to save them money in the long run."

Adair County landowner Darryl Cates said Wednesday that he already has received a state Department of Environmental Quality notice of violation about the dam. Cates argued that he and Adair County Commissioner Sam Chandler, who also is a nearby landowner, had been unfairly highlighted in publicity surrounding the dam allegations.

Cates denied any involvement in the dam's construction, pointing out that it was not built on his property but on a neighboring landowner's. He also questioned whether the structure would even be considered a real dam.

"If there's a dam up there, where's the lake? There's no backed-up water," Cates said. "I had nothing to do with it."

The dam was built on another absentee landowner's property, Fite said. However, he noted, investigators do not believe that that landowner was involved in the dam's construction.

The dam apparently was built to alter the Barren Fork's flow back to its 1970s channel, Fite said. The creek had meandered northward over the past 30 years, he said.

The massive earthen structure -- which is hundreds of feet long and about six to eight feet high -- appears to shift the creek flow and reclaim that land to the north, he said.

"When a creek makes changes, someone gains land and someone loses land," Fite said. "If anyone was to benefit from the creek's movement, it certainly would be Mr. Cates' property."

Dam construction requires state and federal permits.

Investigators know the name of the bulldozer operator who worked on the dam's construction, Fite said, and they are seeking to interview him.

Chandler also denied any involvement in building the dam.

Like Cates, however, he also argued that the structure was not really a dam but a needed alteration that returns the Barren Fork to its proper channel.

The same thing was done without a permit on another portion of the Barren Fork, Chandler claimed.

The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission did not do anything about that because that structure was built by affluent landowners, he alleged.

"It was the right thing to do," the county commissioner said. "This needs to be done on the Barren Fork Creek. In 20 more years, it'll be nothing but a gravel bar with potholes of water in it."

Erosion is destroying neighboring properties, Chandler added. He also contended that Fite and others have dragged his name into the investigation to garner publicity.

"They thought they'd get a little more run out of it," he said.

Cates promised to fight the investigation that seems to be headed in his direction.

He does not live on that land and has no interest in or reason for taking property away from his neighbors, he said.

"That's so ridiculous," Cates said. "I wouldn't do it to my worst enemy. It's pure speculation on the part of Ed Fite."

The Barren Fork Creek is joined by the Illinois River, Flint Creek, Lee and Little Lee creeks and the Upper Mountain Fork River as Oklahoma's state-protected waterways.

Hundreds of thousands of people use the Illinois and its tributaries annually for canoeing, fishing and swimming.

Rod Walton 581-8457