COMMERCE – In an effort to remedy alleged engineering mistakes made in the Stepps Ford Bridge project over the Neosho River, a contractor has been working at the site for the past couple of months.

According to Ottawa County District No. 1 Commissioner John Clarke, the work is under the direction of Guy Engineering with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) oversight. According to ODOT, the project is not their responsibility, but the County’s.

Clarke claims Guy Engineering notified him of an engineering deficiency in need of remedy, and ODOT later notified him they would need to close the Stepps Ford Bridge to traffic if work on a box culvert at the site was not initiated by a certain date, but the work has commenced on the box culvert and the bridge has remained safe to travel.

Clarke has been the county commissioner for 17 years and is not seeking re-election next term. He also worked in the county’s Road District for many years prior. He has had at least 20 bridge replacement projects in his district during his time in the office.

“This project has been the most problematic project in my whole career,” Clarke said. “Unfortunately, probably the only thing I’ll be remembered for is the Stepps Ford Bridge.”

Clarke’s Ottawa County Commissioner’s District No. 1 is a unique district with complicated issues, which include mining remediation issues and the Tar Creek Superfund site.

“The pre-cast concrete slabs being installed in the box culvert are to help support the amount of weight that’s on top of this concrete box,” Clarke said. “Guy Engineering missed a step there because there’s only a set amount of weight that that box can support. There were only two fixes for it, number one, you come in and take some of the overburden off the top of it, or you put additional supports inside the existing box. That was the simplest fix that could be done.”

Clarke said ODOT’s engineers signed off on Guy Engineering’s plan. He said the Stepps Ford box culvert is concrete and inflexible and would crack with too much of a weight load and the other option would have required tearing out the roadway and lowering it.

“To be honest with you I wasn’t for that, because I knew the area floods and I didn’t want a new $6 million bridge with the end of it underwater,” Clarke said. “Once I was made aware it (the box culvert) didn’t meet certain standards, then I was keeping an eye on it. ”

The pre-cast concrete supports now being put in place were also modified on site by being cut off on top approximately six inches, and Clarke said those modifications have been ODOT approved as well.

“If there’s any modifications to be made that is reviewed by Guy Engineering and ODOT,” he said.

The box culvert work was supposed to be completed a month ago, but is still ongoing, according to Clarke.

“I’m out there once or twice a week to see how they’re progressing,” he said.

Clarke said final inspection was done when the initial bridge project was completed and a few issues were discovered at that time.

“They found a few things, just like any project, you’ll find what I call punch list items that need to be addressed, and there was a list of punch list items that needed to be addressed. It didn’t include the erosion issue,” he said.

Landowner Jack Dalrymple, a local engineer, filed a lawsuit back on Jan. 9, 2018 in Ottawa County District Court against the Ottawa County Commissioners after a lengthy attempt of trying to work with the commissioners and ODOT and Guy Engineering to rectify issues. Dalrymple filed the lawsuit due to what he claims are engineering and design flaws causing unauthorized flooding and subsequent damages of his private property and other issues with the new bridge's design.

Dalrymple agreed in March of 2010 to give the county a portion of his land needed to build the project, several acres adjacent to the project, but he is frustrated with the aftermath of flooding and erosion issues now affecting his cattle grazing pasture, hay, and pecan growing land. The land is also used for family camping and provides hunting grounds for an annual veterans’ hunting event.

In return for the donation, the County agreed to replace and build cattle fencing and create two access roads to Dalrymple’s remaining property. Since the new bridge's completion, Dalrymple alleges east bank erosion is a continuing problem as well as damaging flooding.

Clarke said all bridge construction work does cause some expected erosion. He said a change order was put in place on the Stepps Ford project before he was made aware and riprap placed to remedy some bank erosion.

“Now, I think the riprap that was actually used wasn’t large enough and I think Jack has mentioned he believes some of it has sloughed off into the river bank, and I’m sure probably some of it has slid down into the river bank, but it would eventually come to a point where that bank should stop eroding and hopefully stabilize itself,” he said. “And as I’ve monitored this area is does look like to me the bank is stabilizing, but unfortunately it washed part of the bank out before this stabilization.”

Clarke said all bridges in Oklahoma must be inspected every year, ODOT said once every two years, with one exception for “fractured critical design” bridges, which are inspected at least every six months by a team of engineers hired by the U.S. Government.

“I actually think because of the litigation that was getting ready to be initiated, and I think as ODOT started looking closer at the plans maybe they gave it their normal review, but yet when litigation was being proposed they took a second look at the plans and got to doing some adding and subtracting about the amount of weight that was on top of that box culvert. They found out the amount of fill on top of that box probably wasn’t quite adequate to support that,” Clarke said. “Guy Engineering is paying for the fix, and here again I have to rely on their expertise because I’m not an engineer.”

The new Stepps Ford Bridge was built to replace the original steel truss bridge built in 1901 that was closed in 2013.

The County entered into a County Bridge and Road Improvement Fund Engineering contract with Guy Engineering Services, Inc. on April 26, 2007, to plan and supervise the construction of a new bridge over the Neosho River on East 60 Road to replace Stepps Ford Bridge.

Prior to the project, Dalrymple claims the only flooding to his property came when the Neosho River came over the banks causing shallow and slow-moving floodwater, which receded within a few days.

Clarke said right now the only work underway at Stepps Ford is the work on the box culvert.

“I’m sure we’ll look at other issues, but here again because the project is in litigation I don’t know what’s being considered,” Clarke said. “We’re trying to figure a way to come up with a solution that Jack will accept and which is a safe solution.”

Clarke said he believes there is currently some analysis being conducted regarding erosion but those discussions are being handled between Guy Engineering and ODOT, and he has received no information the erosion has caused any safety issues.

“Now, if they come up with a couple solutions that’s when they bring me to the table too,” he said. “The County has not spent any more dollars on this project other than our representation.”

Guy Engineering’s original plans called for two bridges, Bridge A, the main bridge, to be built over the river diagonal to its flow, supported by two concrete piers in the river channel spaced 145 feet apart diagonal to the river’s flow. A smaller Bridge B was in the plans to replace a former drainage culvert, according to Dalrymple’s filing by his attorney Larry Bork.

Ottawa County entered the contract with ODOT on Sept. 17, 2012, calling for the County to review and certify plans for the Bridge project with approval based on the original 4-pier design of Bridge, according to the lawsuit filing. ODOT also certified the plans as compliant with the terms of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Nationwide Permit 14.

Nationwide Permit 14 requires open waters must be maintained to the maximum extent possible for pre-construction course, condition, capacity, and location, and appropriate soil erosion and sediment controls are used and maintained.

Construction of the project commenced on March 10, 2014 and Dalrymple’s lawsuit alleges plans for Bridge A had changed from a four-pier to a six-pier design spaced 105 feet apart, although this had allegedly not been brought to ODOT’s attention.

Dalrymple’s lawsuit alleges the piers of Bridge A set diagonally to the River’s flow, deflect that flow toward the east bank accelerating the erosion of Plaintiff’s downstream property.

Dalrymple also alleges in the lawsuit that although work was completed on the Bridge B box culverts on June 26, 2014, ODOT discovered on July 3, 2014, that its environmental assessment of the project had been done based on the wrong set, the original four-pier set, of plans.

Dalrymple claims in the lawsuit, ditches on the east side of the River were excavated and the entry of the ditch was cut down to 760 feet at the river below the Ordinary High Water Mark. The lawsuit alleges during construction temporary work roads were built by filling rock and gravel into the River channel almost to midstream from the east bank in Oct. 22, 2014, and removed and second work road was built from the west bank beginning April 1, 2015, deflecting the River’s current and accelerating the erosion to his property.

Guy Engineering wrote a letter to County Commissioner Clarke on Mar. 28, 2016, giving the opinion the erosion on the east bank noted by the projects’ environmental engineering consultant was caused by the temporary work road from the west bank.

In May of 2016, after becoming aware of the issue, Dalrymple sent a letter to Guy Engineering, the County Commissioners and others pointing out these issues, including noting that power poles set back originally 70 feet from the bank now only sit five feet from the east bank, (now two feet) and again in May of 2016 asking Guy Engineering seeking an aggressive permanent bank stabilization of the project. Since then, riprap was placed at the site but Dalrymple claims none of it was used to protect his property and erosion of the east bank and drainage ditch still continue.

Dalrymple makes claim the project caused amounts of the east bank to erode into the River throughout the entire length of his property, all pecan trees lining the bank have been lost. The bridge piers continue to deflect the current against the east bank continuing increased erosion.

Several factors of the project’s design are included in Bork’s legal filing on behalf of Dalrymple alleging the design flaws of the project causing increased and rapid flow flooding which takes out fencing, vegetation, and topsoil rendering limited use and inaccessibility of Dalrymple’s property as compared to prior to the project’s construction, and asks for damages to be awarded greater than $50,000 and for his costs incurred in the proceeding.

The contractor has been on site working in the floodplain digging in a drainage ditch that dumps into the Neosho River, according to Dalrymple.

Two endangered species, the Neosho Madtom and Neosho Mucket Mussel, were identified inhabiting the waters at the bridge's location on the Neosho River requiring Tulsa District Corps of Engineers regulatory study, permitting and oversight of the project, as well as other engineering oversight.

Clarke said there is no work currently taking place in the river and therefore the endangered species aren’t affected by the work being done now.

“The only work being done right now is to make that box culvert safe for the traffic that continues to use that corridor,” Clarke said.

ODOT Region 8 Public Information Manager Kenna Mitchell said by e-mail on May 8 that she could not find any crews were working at the Stepps Ford location.

“We were asked to give input on their solution to fix it, which we provided input, but it’s not our project. We’re not funding it. We have no oversight on it because there’s not federal dollars in it, so this is a true County project that they’re working on Guy Engineering with, so we don’t have crews that are out there working or we don’t money tied up in it, so it’s not us on this work,” Mitchell said on Thursday, May 17.

Mitchell said from the beginning Stepps Ford Bridge was not an ODOT project. It was an Ottawa County project that ODOT oversaw the contract for because federal money was involved.

“Counties design the project, we help in managing the contract. So, once there’s a final inspection and the contract’s ended we don’t have anything else to do with the county bridge or the project,” she said.

Mitchell believes the final design was revised at some point after the plans were submitted to ODOT, but she needed to check further for clarification.

“It was not caught until the project commenced,” Mitchell said

In the process for county road and bridge improvements, the county is in charge of the project. If federal funds are used by statute ODOT is tasked with overseeing the contract for construction, and assists the county through the process, but this does not make the project an ODOT project, according to Mitchell.

She said ODOT does have the ability to assist in the inspection of bridges and authority to recommend closure for safety issues.

“We’re trying to make sure that the plans that they put forward are meeting National Bridge Standards,” Mitchell said. “In this case, it appears since Guy Engineering is working with the County on the fix that they have worked out a solution for that, and ODOT is not involved in it.”

(At the Miami News Record’s request Mitchell and Clarke are seeking further documented information and specifics of who completed the subsequent inspection and discovered the box culvert engineering deficiency and actions taken thereafter.)

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.