Open door hearing becomes opportunity to air
grievances with agency
|Construction equipment sits
idle at the future site of the Animas-La Plata project pumping
plant last weekend. At a public meeting Friday, project officials
accounted for cost overruns, citing errors in the original
cost estimate, such as a failure to account for a fault line
under the pumping plant, which led to a realignment of the
structure./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
What was intended as an open house on Animas-La Plata project
cost overruns became an opportunity for opponents to air grievances
last Friday. Critics of the project expressed concerns that recent
overruns are only the tip of the iceberg for the beleaguered water
project, and that despite appearances, the overseeing federal
agency has no intentions of operating above board.
According to Phil Doe, president of the Citizen’s Progressive
Alliance, an A-LP watchdog group, cost overruns, now pegged at
$162 million, could total in the billions over the life of the
“When you say $500 million, you are so far off it’s
unbelievable,” Doe told a panel of Bureau of Reclamation
officials Friday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. “The
true costs are already in the billions.”
Doe was among about 70 people who turned out for what is to be
the first of a series of informational hearings held by the Bureau
to keep the public in the loop on the project.
And while officials admitted to numerous errors in estimating
the project’s original price tag of $338 million, they stood
by the latest estimate.
“We’re confident we can build this for $500 million,”
said Rick Ehat, the newly appointed A-LP project construction
manager. In his new position, Ehat will head the A-LP Construction
Office, created to oversee the project locally, and report directly
to Bureau of Reclamation Regional Manager Rick Gold. Prior to
this, leadership came from the area office in Denver.
Creation of Ehat’s position, as well as that of the local
construction office, is an effort to create greater accountability
and safeguard against future problems, said Bill Rinne, deputy
to the Washington Bureau Chief John Keys.
“We are fully committed to the project, fully committed
to working with the sponsors and fully committed to working with
the public,” Rinne said.
Referring to a report filed late last month, Rinne said cost
overruns could be attributed to four main factors: basing original
1999 cost estimates on appraisal levels; failure to conduct a
rigorous review of the numbers; failure to account for unforeseen
circumstances, such as the relocation of County Road 211 and a
gas pipeline; and failure to account for costs associated with
the Native American Self Determination and Education Act, commonly
known as the 638 process. He also cited a breakdown in communication
between his agency and the project sponsors – the Southern
Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the three regional water
districts that would be served by the project.
Despite the Bureau’s oversights, Rinne urged opponents
and proponents alike to move on. “We feel badly about it,
but it’s one of those things that you try to project on
in the future,” he said.
Nevertheless, some audience members took issue, arguing there
are still many unknowns associated with the project’s costs.
Chief among those is the routing of the Navajo pipeline, which
will deliver water to the Navajo nation.
“There are neighborhoods in Farmington that will be turned
up to make way for this pipeline,” said John Zwierzycki,
president of the Weminuche Chapter of the Sierra Club. “They
don’t even know what route it’s going to take, how
can they know the costs? Yet, they say it’s part of the
According to the Citizen’s Progressive Alliance, another
potential cost not included in the recent estimate is that of
bringing power to the project site, estimated at about $13 million.
Gold said this cost was originally supposed to be picked up by
the Western Area Power Administration. However, the group has
yet to include the cost in its budget, something he admits could
lead to problems.
“If that doesn’t happen, then we have an issue on
our hands,” he said.
However, when asked again pointblank by an audience member if
there would be any more cost increases aside from inflation, Gold’s
answer was a confident no.
“When you see that number in 2006 or 2007, (inflation)
will be the only increase you’ll see,” he said.
Aside from concerns over cost, meeting participants also expressed
frustration over the Bureau’s inaccessibility.
“I have called and sent e-mails and never get the courtesy
of a return call,” said Dave Wagner, a local contractor.
However, according to Bureau spokesman Barry Wirth, the agency
is trying to rectify that situation with the meetings, as well
as a new local public outreach program.
“We’re trying to be as transparent as we can,”
said Wirth, who offered up his e-mail and phone number. “This
is the first of a future series of efforts to communicate.”
Nevertheless, when pressed to give specifics on who was responsible
for the mistakes or signing off on the first cost estimate, the
“Do you want names?” Ehat asked at one point, responding
to an audience member’s question. “I don’t have
For some audience members, this proved too much.
“I’m tired of sitting here and listening to you guys
being contrite, because you’re going to get your asses covered,”
said Sage Remington, a Southern Ute Tribal member and outspoken
project opponent, prior to walking out amid applause.
However, other audience members held out hope for getting answers
through a congressional investigation.
“McInnis indicated there may be some criminal activity,”
said the Sierra Club’s Zwierzycki. “Now, it’s
up to Congress to do something. It will be unfortunate if they
stand by and let this project slide into hell.”
Although a formal date has not been set, the Bureau of Reclamation
plans to have similar meetings in the future and maintain an open
door policy with the public.