CANNON BEACH - Road safety issues, environmental concerns and a labor dispute have swerved into the north entrance project.

The high-profile, $4.8 million endeavor to build an underpass is designed to improve safety by allowing drivers to exit the city without crossing traffic on U.S. Highway 101. Overseen by the Oregon Department of Transportation, the project is targeted for completion by September of 2003.

Construction slowed in recent days, but work is proceeding, said Kathy McMullen, ODOT area manager. A two-month closure of the north entrance remains likely to begin in late July, she said.

But recent challenges for the contractor, Huffman-Wright, have complicated the already complex project.

Quarry quandaries

After permits were secured and work began in January, the entrance project brought a dramatic change to the Osburn Brothers Rock quarry site, approximately three miles east of the junction of U.S. Highway 26 and U.S. Highway 101. The quarry, a supplier of pit rock, also has been serving as a site for depositing dirt and wood debris from the entrance project.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Heavy construction traffic prompted state officials to temporarily shut down access to this quarry site, which is located three miles east of the Cannon Beach junction and is owned by the Osburn brothers.

A Sept. 5, 2001, application for an approach to the site from the state highway was conditionally approved by ODOT.

"The original application was for a very small volume of truck traffic," said Brent Pierson, a district manager for ODOT. "Once work started on the (north entrance) project, traffic increased significantly, and the quarry site had a change of use that made the existing access illegal."

Residents in the area had called state officials to complain about road debris and potential safety hazards presented by the heavy volume of truck traffic.

"That section of Highway 26 is notorious for traffic accidents," Pierson said. No one has been hurt, no serious damage to vehicles has been reported and the road was never blocked for a long period of time, he added.

On May 31, Pierson sent a letter to the quarry owners advising them to shut down the entry until they obtained the proper permit.

The owners are pursuing a temporary permit, he said. For a permit they will be required to:

• Construct a deceleration lane and a drainage ditch;

• Move the site approach to a point aligned with Campbell Drive on the north of U.S. Highway 26;

• Develop a larger entrance so trucks can negotiate the turn;

• Install a tire wash near the entrance so trucks track less debris onto the highway;

• Pave the first 40 feet into the site;

• Meet conditions set by other agencies such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Division of State Lands.

A permanent approach permit could take up to six months to acquire, Pierson said. But he added that he could authorize a temporary permit in as little as a week through an expedited process, if conditions are met.

Pierson is not opposed to an expanded quarry operation at that location, if it meets requirements, he added. "The more suppliers we have, the better prices we have for everybody."

Meanwhile, the Osburns had applied for a conditional land-use permit from the county to expand the operation. A Clatsop County Planning Commission review of the request, previously set to occur last week, has been postponed until July 9.

The expansion would allow the applicant to add stockpiles, provide a wider range of crushed rock materials, permit occasional blasting, and add flexibility for times of operating a rock crusher. The plan includes improvements to the road accessing the quarry.

Rainmar Bartl, city planner for Cannon Beach, was hired independently by the county as a consultant to prepare a recommendation about the expansion proposal. He concluded that additional information was needed and additional actions should occur before the operation should expand or even continue.

A noise study and a blasting plan are needed, and conditions of a previous permit - such as an earth berm to reduce dust and screen operations - have not been met, he noted.

As a condition for the land-use permit obtained by the previous quarry owner, the Department of Geological and Mineral Industries required a Department of Environmental Quality storm water permit. That permit has not been issued, nor does the operation have a DEQ basic air containment discharge permit for the crusher, according to Bartl.

Mike Morgan, a planning consultant hired by residents near the quarry, criticized the expansion plan. Potential road hazards presented by the heavier truck traffic from the north entrance project had spurred many of the concerns, he said.

"It's ironic, because the north entrance project was intended to improve safety conditions," Morgan said. With work in one area creating a potential problem somewhere else, "it's like squeezing a balloon."

Environmental edginess

Morgan added in a written statement that if the expansion occurred, residents in Edgewater Terrace and elsewhere in the vicinity - more than 30 families within sight and sound of the quarry - would "suffer direct economic loss and a serious reduction in the quality of life," with frequent noise from equipment, blowing dust, fumes and traffic. The owners had showed disregard for nearby homeowners by operating the Huffman-Wright's north entrance project prior to county approval, he added.

"They have allowed the excavation contractors to deposit hundreds of yards of fill within 50 feet of a salmon- and steelhead-bearing stream" without a development permit or sediment or erosion control measures, Morgan wrote. The owners also allowed stockpiles of stumps and hundreds of yards of wood waste to be burned.

"Somehow it got missed in the biological assessment of the (north entrance) project - it doesn't look like there's been a plan for soil disposal," Seaside resident Doug Ray said. As restoration project manager for Clatsop County's association of watershed councils, Ray said he had been in the quarry area last month consulting with a nearby land owner.

Hay bales were subsequently placed in an apparent effort to limit erosion in spots where the spoils did not appear to have been dumped appropriately, he said.

Joe Sheahan, an Astoria-based fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he received many phone calls voicing concern about possible impacts to habitat in the quarry's unnamed stream, a tributary of the Necanicum River, where fish have been observed.

Environmental, geological and land-use officials were contacted to assess the overall situation, which have entered a "mode of suspension," Sheahan said. "Because there are a number of different agencies involved, it becomes a slower problem to correct."

Whether there was an impact to federally protected species of salmon is not yet known.

How Huffman-Wright deals with the situation and continues to work on the project is a matter its leaders will determine, according to ODOT officials.

"We have an inspector who has tight control over the project, making sure it is built to specifications, but we do not tell them how to do the work," McMullen said.

Labor line

As if those issues were not enough, a small picket line appeared last week at the north entrance. Four men held signs alleging, "Huffman-Wright is violating federal law."

Jim Anderson of Gladstone, field representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 701, alleged that Huffman-Wright had wrongfully fired an employee.

The contractor had terminated employee Larry Lovelady "based on his taking concerted action in support of unionizing the employer's project," according to Anderson's charge, filed with the National Labor Relations Board June 11.

The charge will be investigated, an NLRB spokeswoman said.

Huffman-Wright officials, based in Canyonville, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Huffman-Wright is not a union contractor, McMullen said. "We are specified by law to go with the low bid" when awarding contracts.

ODOT officials, and subsequently Oregon State Police, said the demonstrators were asked to stay outside the project boundaries.

"From an ODOT perspective, we just want it to be a safe site," McMullen said. "They're welcome to picket."

Anderson said the concerns include a lack of training opportunities, such as an apprentice program on the project.

He said bidding restrictions should be changed. "This is taxpayer money - just because they are the lowest bidder does not mean they are the best."

On March 27, ODOT officials terminated a contract with Huffman-Wright on a $23.5 million freeway project at Sunnybrook Road in Clackamas County. As reasons cited in that situation, ODOT alleged the contractor had failed to demonstrate adequate expertise in pursuing contract work, was uncooperative in following orders of the project engineer, failed to secure permits and supplies, and was months behind schedule, according to Patrick Cooney, ODOT deputy director for communications.

However, ODOT had never previously had reason to terminate a contract with Huffman-Wright and had worked successfully with that company on at least nine projects throughout the state since 1996, Cooney said.

McMullen said in the overall progression of the two-year Cannon Beach north entrance project, current challenges are not likely to have much of an impact.

She acknowledged the project's complexity, with unstable soils and weather conditions adding to the mix. But she said ODOT officials continue to work closely with the contractor and city officials, and to offer bi-weekly tours of the construction site.

"When it's done, I think people will agree it's a good project."