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Catfish Stall Bridge Replacement Work

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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Work on a $5.8 million bridge project in Oklahoma has come to a standstill after a change in the bridge's design caused concern with federal officials.

Worried about threats to the three-inch-long endangered madtom catfish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a stop-work July 28 on construction of the new Stepps Ford Bridge in Ottawa County, OK, until an environmental study is completed.

Specifically, USFWS has taken issue with the contractor's plan to build a cofferdam in the Neosho River to accommodate constructing a seven-span bridge, instead of the five-span bridge that already had environmental clearance.

Stepps Ford Bridge

Concern over endangered catfish has halted work on the Stepps Ford Bridge's $5.8 million replacement project. The existing bridge has been closed for two years.

The Pratt through-truss bridge has two 180-foot-long spans and was originally built in 1901, crossing the Neosho River at Main St. in Miami, OK. It was relocated to its current location at E. 60 Road near Commerce in the 1920s, according to

'Kind of Frustrating'

Only four populations of these catfish remain in the world, and they live primarily in the Neosho River, according to the USFWS. The Neosho River runs through eastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma.

The USFWS's study will determine if the two extra piers could disrupt the madtom catfish habitat.

Ottawa County Commission John Clarke told it will take at least 90 days to complete the study, "so we're looking at probably four months minimum to start construction again."

The bridge project originally had environmental clearance, but the design had to be changed last month.

"They actually modified the design to be able to put shorter spans in there, and by doing so, it required two additional piers," Clarke explained.

The dilapidated bridge has been closed for two years, and medical services have to travel a 22-mile-detour to get to the other side of the river, Clarke said, according to

"It's kind of frustrating," Clarke said, adding: "I'm concerned about fish and wildlife, and I'm an avid hunter and fisherman, and I don't want to be the guy who puts a little catfish into extinction."

Pier Placing Alternatives

Ottawa County commissioners are expected to meet with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to examine alternatives for placing the piers and to try to reach an agreement with the USFWS.

madtom catfish
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Only four populations of the three-inch-long endangered madtom catfish remain in the world, according to the USFWS.

John Blickensderfer, vice president of engineering for contractor Guy Engineering, told The Miami News-Record that ODOT thinks the method to build the piers, not the increased number, is an issue.

The contractor had planned to build a cofferdam, Blickensderfer said, but USFWS said dewatering around the piers could wipe out the madtom population.

Most likely, the approved plan will require drilling holes for the piers in the water, inserting casements, and pumping water out of the casements before concrete is poured.

County commissioners expect the contractor to ask for an extra $40,000 to $50,000 because of the delay.

"If we can come up with an alternate way of getting the piers in place, obviously we'll save some money that way," Clarke said.

Additionally, the existing bridge needs to come down before opening the new one, but wildlife experts said taking down those piers will disrupt the fish habitat.

Seeking ESA Reform

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in on the situation, stating: "The plight of the Stepps Ford Bridge construction project just illustrates why the Chamber has supported a bill that would bring long-needed reforms to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by incorporating more transparency, accountability, and better science into how the Act is implemented."

Oklahoma DOT
Oklahoma DOT

Built in 1901, the Stepps Ford Bridge featured two 180-foot-long spans. It originally crossed the Neosho River near Miami, OK, but was moved to its current location in the 1920s.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found. According to the Chamber, 1,500 species and sub-species have been listed since the law was enacted.

The bill, H.R. 4315, the 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act, amends the ESA to require scientific and commercial data be made publicly available as the basis for determining whether a species is endangered or threatened, including each proposed regulation for a species listing.

'Very Little Success'

"Unfortunately, the implementation of the ESA over the last four decades has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, and burdened landowners—all with very little success in the actual recovery of species (only 2% of the species listed have recovered)," the Chamber said.

The bill also calls for making details available on federal spending for ESA-related litigation and limiting the award of ESA-related litigation costs.

The House approved the bill on July 29 by a vote of 233-190. However, the Chamber says its passage in the Senate "is uncertain, at best."


Tagged categories: Bridges; Contracts; Design; Environmental Protection; Project Management

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (8/6/2014, 11:12 AM)

It’s obvious that this project has been poorly managed - why would any design and construction team change the design after spending time and money for required permits and clearance?

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (8/7/2014, 8:30 AM)

Andrew: Money! It could have been the State pre-cleared a basic design plan, and the contractor figured he could save money by substituting another.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (8/7/2014, 10:06 AM)

Yes - I agree, and I am all for cost savings - but I think that they should have brought their cost saving plan to the table earlier on.

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