MONTPELIER -- Vermont town and state officials wanting to replace culverts washed away nearly two years ago by Tropical Storm Irene with new larger, environmentally friendly models have been running into resistance from the federal agency they had hoped would pay for the work.
At issue are structures that often get no notice until they back up in heavy rains and a road washes out. Traditionally looking like large pipes or concrete cubes, culverts are designed to channel water under roadways. State standards adopted seven years ago urge that they should now be larger, arch-shaped and have natural river bottom lining their bottoms -- better for passing fish and other organisms than a steel or concrete floor.
The Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee of the Vermont House heard testimony on Wednesday from some of the town leaders, state officials and aides to Vermont’s three-member Washington delegation who have been fighting the battle on the state’s behalf. But one group that hasn’t been heard from is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has balked at providing some of the emergency funding the state hoped would pay for the work.
Not hearing from FEMA bothered the committee’s chairman, Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, who called it "amazing" and "incredible" that agency officials declined the committee’s invitation to appear.
FEMA spokesman David Mace said later that FEMA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, has a longstanding policy that its employees don’t testify before "non-federal legislative bodies."
He also said the state’s formal appeal of a FEMA regional office denial of full funding for a new culvert in Townshend is pending at the agency’s Washington headquarters, so it would not have been proper for FEMA officials to testify now in Montpelier.
Those testifying Wednesday argued that with the more severe flooding that’s becoming a feature of an era with a changing climate, it would be foolish to rebuild culverts to a decades-old standard.
"These culverts have proved to be inadequate. They blew out," said David Weinstein, a policy adviser with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office. "Why would we use federal tax dollars to build inadequate infrastructure? It makes no sense."
If the state wins its current appeal to FEMA, it could provide Townshend with an estimated extra $100,000 to upgrade the culvert destroyed by Irene in August 2011. Statewide, towns collectively could get roughly an extra $8 million for culvert upgrades if FEMA agrees to support the newer standards.
Mace said FEMA had agreed to some culvert upgrades -- nearly $6 million worth -- but was not aiming for the standards set by the state Agency of Natural Resources in 2006.
Mace said FEMA will pay for upgrades to meet new required standards, but will not do so because they are discretionary.
Deputy Transportation Secretary Susan Minter said FEMA was misinterpreting Vermont’s standards in concluding they are not uniformly enforced. She said staff from the state environmental agency visit the sites of new culverts to ensure each is designed for its specific setting. But she added that all are required to meet specific minimum standards to be awarded the required stream alteration permit.
"We have a state standard and it is universally applied ... FEMA has been looking for reasons to say that’s not the case," she said.