$48M road construction project on hold to protect endangered species

Road work put on hold

Part of a $48 million road construction project is now on hold, to protect a 3-inch-long fish. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a cease and desist order for part of the State Road 123 widening project.

The road itself is not shut down. But the northern section of road construction has been stopped for now. The Army Corps is investigating possible enforcement action against the Florida Department of Transportation, and its contractor, Anderson-Columbia.

State Road 123 is a major commuter pathway between Fort Walton Beach and Crestview. It would already test your driving skills. Construction hasn't helped. Driver Jeff Stovall said, "It's definitely slowed the traffic down, there's no doubt about that. Especially when you come up, there's a couple of spots where you have to make turns, and that definetly slows things down and it gets a little hairy"

Not far away from the dust and noise of road construction, is the pristine home of a conservation success story called the Okaloosa Darter. Bill Tate of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said, "When you're dealing with an endangered species, any impact is still an impact."

The fish is classified as threatened now, because of huge efforts that included expanding its habitat. That's why the permit for the 123 project forbid the discharge of what's called "fill"...basically sand or dirt...into creeks where the Darter thrives. Tate said, "When sediments in the form of sand erode into the creeks from construction sites or other disturbances, it smothers those brown and green habitats that the darter really needs to find food, to spawn in, and for protection from predators."

The Florida Department of Transportation says the fill got into the creeks during a rainstorm. Silt fences intended to protect the clear water were overwhelmed, and the sand washed into the shallows where the darters thrive. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a cease and desist order. It also requires the fish's habitat be restored.

Channel 3 asked Ian Satter at FDOT if this is going to make a two year project even longer. He said, "Well we're still assessing that, but right now we're not seeing any major delays in the completion of the project. Obviously all projects are based on weather conditions, but right now we are not going to see any significant delay."

In fact FDOT is meeting with the Army Corps tomorrow to see if the repairs that have been made are enough to get work started again. But a fine of up to $32,000 is still possible.

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