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[Archived] Adair County Commissioner Involved In Barren Fork Fiasco

| News | January 05, 2013

Adair County Commissioner Involved In Barren Fork Fiasco

Oklahoma Officials Say Dam Violates Federal, State Water Laws

By John L. Moore

The Morning News

Oklahoma officials involved in a lawsuit against the poultry industries over water quality and the Illinois River learned recently they have a battle to fight in their own back yard.

A 425-foot-long dam, wide enough to drive a pickup across, was built on the Barren Fork of the Illinois River near Westville, Okla. Oklahoma officials said there were no permits or approvals obtained for construction.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Oklahoma's Department of Environmental Quality and The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission are investigating the dam, how it came to be built, a county commissioner's role in its construction and the damage it has caused the stream.

It is one of the worst violations of the state's scenic river law on impounding or diverting a stream since the law was enacted, said Ed Fite, administrator for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

The Scenic Rivers Act requires approval by Oklahoma's Legislature to divert or impound the Barren Fork or any other scenic river tributary.

The corps has drafted a letter to Sam Chandler, an Adair County commissioner, to immediately stop all work on the dam, said Ed Engelke, a spokesman for the corps.

The investigation will look into every detail of how the dam was built and what equipment was used to build it, said Rick Stubblefield, a member of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

The dam lies about eight miles east of Westville and is built on land owned by Darryl Cates, but Chandler also owns property in the immediate vicinity, Fite said.

"That's the first step, to get them to stop, and then we will evaluate what has been done," Engelke said.

Given the high quality of the water and that Barren Fork is a scenic river, the dam will likely have to be removed and the stream restored, Engelke said.

Fines for violating the federal laws in this case can reach $25,000 a day for the violations plus restoration cost.

Two cases in recent years with less serious water quality offenses resulted in fines of $75,000 plus supplemental environmental projects that had to be done as a part of the penalty, Fite said.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of yards of gravel were dredged from the stream to build the dam and algae has already started growing in the pool of water caused by the dredging and dam construction, Stubblefield said.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson is also involved in the investigation, Fite said.

Neither Chandler nor Cates returned repeated phone calls to their homes Wednesday to answer questions for this report.

During an interview with Oklahoma officials, Cates referred questions about the dam to Chandler, indicating he was involved in its construction, Fite said.

Cates was involved in an absentee ballot scandal in Adair County in 2004 that was also investigated. The practice was found not to be illegal, but several Oklahoma officials said it was highly unethical.

"I hate to put it in these terms, but this dam could not have come at a worse time," Fite said. "Oklahoma has to give as much emphasis to correcting the problems this dam has created as we've done in the past four years with other water quality issues."

Those other issues involve years of lawsuits and negotiating between Oklahoma officials and Northwest Arkansas cities and industries concerning phosphorus entering the river in Arkansas.

Too much phosphorus can result in algae growth and contribute to taste and odor problems with the water and fish kills in extreme circumstances.

The dam has already caused damage to the health of the stream and fish and other aquatic species may start dying off because of the disruption, Fite said.