Following the drowning deaths of three paddlers on Bull Creek, Congressman Billy Long has filed a bill asking the Army Corps of Engineers to study whether public safety should be considered before the Corps issues a Nationwide Permit.
Long filed HR 8563 on Oct. 9, and on Monday it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.
According to the House bill tracker website, the actual language of Long’s proposal isn’t yet available.
Long issued a statement about what his bill intends to do.
“The tragic loss of life that occurred at Bull Creek quite possibly could have been avoided if the Army Corps of Engineers had the necessary authority and resources to consider public safety when approving Nationwide Permits,” Long said.
“Rather than writing them a blank check, I’m asking the Army Corps to provide a detailed breakdown of the financial and personnel resources they would require to prioritize public safety and inspect completed projects approved under Nationwide Permits. My role as your Congressman is to promote public safety and protect personal liberties. This legislation will determine how the Army Corps can ensure public safety without infringing on property owner’s rights.”
The issue arose when the Corps issued a Nationwide Permit to a private landowner who wanted to build a crossing across Bull Creek in Taney County that linked two tracts of his land. The crossing was built, but it was wider and taller than the Corps permit allowed.
Two kayak paddlers drowned at the crossing during a high-water event last year when the creek was 17 feet high, and a third drowned there in July when the creek was 6 feet high. Witnesses said all capsized after they were caught in a backflowing “hydraulic” created by water flowing over the crossing.
Kirk Farrell, whose wife Rita drowned in July while paddling over the crossing, said Long had called him on several occasions after the tragedy.
Farrell said he initially thought Long was covering for the Corps. He has changed his mind.
“He called me and was very nice,” Farrell said. “He said he was going to do something about it. Now that he’s backed it up, it’s a very good thing and I’m proud of him.”
Three wrongful-death lawsuits have now been filed against landowner Steve Johnson and the construction company he hired to build the crossing, Tom Boyce Excavating of Branson.
Johnson has torn out the original crossing and is in the process of building another, with a different design, also under the Corps Nationwide Permit.
The Corps previously has said that Nationwide Permits don’t include public safety as a consideration for whether to issue one or not. In the Bull Creek case, the crossing only had to be built in a way that allowed fish and other aquatic wildlife to move up and downstream, to meet Clean Water Act requirements.
The Corps’ Little Rock office issued this response Wednesday to Long’s legislative action:
“It is our policy not to comment on pending legislation. What we can tell you is that the Corps of Engineers is committed to protecting the nation’s aquatic resources and navigation capacity, while allowing reasonable development through fair and balanced decisions. We will apply the same level of commitment to any future requirements if tasked.”
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