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Contractor still questions dam's safety

Franklin County lake project back on track

The Lake Okhissa project in Franklin County is back on track after a long delay due to a contractor dispute that eventually involved U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and a major independent engineering firm.

Lake Okhissa`s 94-foot-tall dam will be the state`s second largest dam behind Sardis. Questions by the former contractor about the safety of the dam led the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) in January to make several recommendations to the U.S. Natural Resources Conversation Service (NRCS), the federal agency that is building the lake.

Two concerns were the dam`s wave protection barrier and the cracks that have occurred in the dam`s concrete conduit box, known simply as the “box,” which allows water to stream from the dam to the creek on the other side. Contractor John H. Parker of Natchez said the box is sitting on soft soil, as evidenced by the cracks, and this raises a safety issue for the people who live around the dam, which is considered a high-hazard dam.

MDEQ asked the NRCS to bore underneath the box to see if the soil was soft and also to redesign the dam`s wave protection. Both of these recommendations came from the independent engineering firm Schnabel Engineering South, LLC, which MDEQ hired after Cochran asked that the situation be investigated.

But, in a Feb. 17 letter to MDEQ chief Charles Chisolm, the NRCS said it does not plan to follow either of these recommendations.

“We met with DEQ personally during the consideration phase, and we concluded the designs were adequate and we would proceed in March,” said NRCS state engineer Kim Harris.

The agency has hired Pickett Industries of Shreveport, La., to finish the last eight feet of the dam, apply epoxy to the box`s cracks, install the wave protection and other jobs. Harris hopes to see the dam project finished by the end of this year.

According to the NRCS, damage to the box from the soil borings could exceed the benefits because the box would be in danger of fracturing. The NRCS will bring in engineers to study the situation and is considering a cone penetration test, said Harris.

As for the wave protection, the NRCS plans to stick with the original design. Harris said the cellular block system was not installed correctly by Parker`s company. The system has worked on other dam projects, he said.

Parker maintains that the blocks were laid correctly. He received no letter from the NRCS during construction that he had not done the job correctly, and he was paid for laying the blocks. Three full-time NRCS inspectors approved the block system, said Parker, who maintains the system is failing because it was laid on sand and the original design was not a proper design. MDEQ had asked the NRCS to redesign the system to be either inter-locked or cable-tied.

Chisolm, however, has agreed to go along with the NRCS on both issues, but the MDEQ plans to closely monitor the rest of the construction. MDEQ signed off on the original design of the dam in 1998.

MDEQ`s decision was a surprise to Parker.

“Our observation of recent events leads up to the apparent conclusion that the DEQ director has relaxed his requirements outlined in his formal letter to the NRCS, and this appears to be based on no new or additional engineering basis.”

Lawsuit pending

The NRCS terminated Parker for default in April 2003 when the job was 90% complete. The NRCS’ reason for terminating Parker was his failure to perform and make progress, but Parker said the NRCS held the project up with a change order on the wave protection barrier. He plans to file a law suit in federal court.

Parker started construction on the 1,050-acre manmade lake in 2000, but almost since the start has questioned the dam`s design and its safety. Before his termination, he hired an independent firm, Pritchard Engineering Inc. of Starkville, to look at the dam, and engineer Clyde Pritchard agreed with Parker that the soil underneath the box is soft.

Harris said there is nothing wrong with the box`s design or the soil beneath the box. The settling that has occurred was anticipated and is well within projections, he said.

Parker`s complaints eventually led Cochran to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look into the situation. Cochran is chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which presides over the NRCS.

“The Natural Resources Conservation Service is handling this project and has been working closely with the Department of Environmental Quality to address any concerns related to the project,” said Cochran. “We understand a new contact has been finalized on the project, and we feel confident that the project will be successfully completed within the next year.”

When asked if MDEQ saw merit in Parker`s complaints, MDEQ spokesman Jamie Crawford said Parker “certainly got our attention with some of the allegations.”

“A lot of (the structure) is covered up, and that`s one of the things that some of the additional testing would address,” said Crawford. “My understanding is that Parker has been around a long time, and involved in a lot of dam projects. I’m sure he wouldn`t have been chosen by NRCS by if he wasn`t knowledgeable.”

When finished, the Lake Okhissa complex will include conference facilities, a lodge, cabins, beaches, boat ramps, a marina, picnic shelters, fishing piers, camping pads, playing fields, a game room, hiking, jogging and biking trails and an environmental education center. The facilities are planned on 4,000 acres of land surrounding the lake.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.


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