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Coos County, Ore., settles environmental damage suit with Sierra Club

Coos County settled yet another claim Wednesday over environmental damage caused by construction of its taxpayer-funded $51 million natural gas pipeline.

Sep. 23—COQUILLE, Ore. — Coos County settled yet another claim Wednesday over environmental damage caused by construction of its taxpayer-funded $51 million natural gas pipeline.

Commissioners voted to pay Sierra Club attorneys $55,000 in fees in exchange for the conservation agency dropping a $4.3 million lawsuit that alleged the county exercised lax oversight of the project. The Sierra Club was joined in the suit by the Coos County Coalition and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Project.

The county addressed the Sierra Club's concerns by agreeing last week to spend $570,000 to repair damaged areas along the pipeline route in a settlement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"The county is going to pay the largest fine in Army Corps' history in Oregon, and we think that's entirely appropriate," said Sierra Club attorney Thane Tienson of Portland. "Despite the impacts this project has had, the magnitude of the county's fine sends a strong message that whether you're a county or a contractor, you need to take the Clean Water Act seriously."

Sierra Club attorneys argued that the county allowed Miami-based contractor MasTec Inc. to damage salmon spawning habitat while burying the 60-mile line from Roseburg to Coos Bay.

The corps' settlement came a week after the state Department of Environmental Quality announced a $54,000 fine against the county and a $204,000 fine against MasTec for state water quality violations. The latter penalty was among the top 10 amounts the DEQ has ever issued.

"Given the magnitude of the allegations, they were terrific settlements for the county," county attorney Jay Waldron said. "Now we'll pursue MasTec for those amounts." Both the county and the Sierra Club are fixing targets on MasTec to pay cleanup costs -- the county for reimbursements of settlement amounts and other disputed costs and the Sierra Club for the same violations of state and federal water quality laws that involved the county.

On Monday, a judge allowed the Sierra Club to amend its initial lawsuit to include more than 10,000 alleged water quality violations, mostly related to the project's failure to install proper erosion control measures. Because each violation can carry maximum fines of tens of thousands of dollars, the complaint price tag has risen to $323 million against MasTec.

"The county's settlement is really going to turn up the heat on MasTec," Sierra Club attorney Brent Foster said. "They're now the only one out there with their pants down."

The corps also hasn't decided how much of a penalty to assess against the Florida contractor. MasTec officials didn't return repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Oregon-based Rockford Corp., which the county hired to replace MasTec, is tying up loose ends on the pipeline, Waldron said. He doesn't expect the project to meet an Oct. 1 completion date.

"There's too much left to do," he said.

Mostly, that means work on a lateral line to Myrtle Point, but also some cleanup work and testing on the main line.

Northwest Natural Gas, which will operate the pipeline, is completing work on the gate station in Coos Bay, where the company will connect its distribution center to the mainline. Northwest Natural's contractor, Henkels & McCoy, is also drilling three lines beneath the bay to access the North Spit, where several new industries are expected to connect to the system.

So far, the utility has signed up about 100 customers, South Coast district manager Cal Grimmer said, and will start to install those systems next week.

To see more of The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore., or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.registerguard.com. (c) 2004, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.