Local officials, residents prepare for potential closure of Whittier Road
FARMINGTON - With salmon assessments and environmental regulations blocking a project to stabilize an eroding portion Whittier Road, local officials are preparing to close off the section if necessary.
Since August 2011, after Hurricane Irene and an intense storm a week later took a 50-foot chunk of banking, erosion along a portion of the Whittier Road has continued at an alarming rate, leaving the river roughly 35 feet off the Whittier Road. Town Manager Richard Davis noted that there was about a four-foot overhang off the shoulder that had been undercut by erosion; once that goes, he said, the road would likely have to close.
"Once that breaks off we're probably done," Davis said Friday. "There's nothing else to stop [the erosion]."
Some oil companies were already diverting deliveries around the at-risk section, Davis said. The town imposed a weight limit of 23,000 pounds for vehicles using the impacted portion of the road in late June. That posting did not included oil trucks or school buses.
Mt. Blue Regional School District Transportation Director Dave Leavitt said the school district was closely monitoring the condition of the road for school buses. If Whittier Road is deemed unsafe, or outright closed, buses would take the Knowlton Corner Road.
The town submitted a grant application for a hazard mitigation grant administered by Federal Emergency Management Agency totaling $227,000 at the end of April. If approved, the matching grant, with 75 percent picked up by the U.S. government and 25 percent by the town, would pay for a mitigation plan which included installing mature tree root balls anchored with boulders in deep trenches to stabilize the bank. The plan was expected to not only protect the bank from further erosion, but build it back up by capturing silt deposits from the river.
However, local officials learned in July that FEMA intends to require the town to complete a biological assessment under Section 7 of Endangered Species Act, in order to determine the potential impact of the project on the local salmon habitat. That assessment is expected to take weeks, and the stabilization project can only be completed in a "low-water" window that stretches from mid-July to the end of September.
A teleconference between local and federal officials was held yesterday, in an effort to quantify the scope and timeline of the assessment. Davis said the town received no clear answers in regards to what would need to happen, assessment-wise, in order to begin stabilizing the bank within the low-water window.
At this point, Davis said, it is probably too late. The town has barricades and road signs on order should the road collapse.
One of the more frustrating things about the whole process, Davis said, was the likely collapse of the Whittier Road into the Sandy River couldn't be to the benefit of the salmon population.
Previous estimates, cited by local officials and Maine's congressional delegation, which has asked FEMA to reconsider the assessment requirement, have the cost of repairing the road equaling roughly three times that of the stabilization project.