Discrepancy Between State Standards, FEMA Reimbursement Halts Culvert Repair

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It’s been about a year and a half since Tropical Storm Irene flooded parts of the state. And about 50 bridges and 40 culverts in Vermont are still not repaired. The reason, in some cases, is a discrepancy between what the state requires and what FEMA will reimburse. 

If a town rebuilds in accordance with state requirements to protect streams, FEMA, in most cases, isn’t covering the cost.

This winter, the Saxton’s River is gushing downstream under Town Bridge Number 35 in Westminster, threading its way through ice-coated rocks. But it wasn’t so scenic the day of the flood.

"The water levels were roaring through here with trees and debris," recalled Westminster Town Manager Matthew Daskal. "Pieces of people’s homes and lives, sort of floating in the stream."

Daskal said before Irene the approach to the bridge had been a road sitting on top of unstable fill that sloped down right into the river.  Irene tore that apart.

"This is what washed away is right where we are standing," said Daskall. "This was just your standard paved road coming up to a bridge. And after Irene, there was nothing. It was a large hole approximately 20 feet deep. As days went on from Irene, we saw that it continued to get worse. The road started collapsing into the hole."

To get a permit to rebuild from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources the town was required to replace the road by extending the bridge 42 feet. Westminster finished the work in January 2012. The cost? $540,000. FEMA, which normally reimburses 90 % of approved projects has reimbursed the town less than half, about $200,000.

"FEMA’s determination was that we should have built it the same way that we saw fail during Irene," said Daskal. "We couldn’t do that because of state requirements.  Our indication, at the time, was that  those requirements were requirements for FEMA, as well. That, to be eligible for funding, you had to comply with the necessary permitting and we did that."

Other towns are in a similar predicament. According to Vermont’s Department of Public Safety municipalities have spent or are considering spending more than $8 million repairing bridges and culverts in accordance with ANR stream alteration permitting requirements. But FEMA does not consider that eligible for reimbursement. This includes the towns of Readsboro, Grafton and Townshend.

David Mace, a spokesperson for FEMA said the federal agency can only reimburse for state permitting requirements that are enforced uniformly.

"FEMA reimburses for work done to meet codes and standards that are applied every day to every project," said Mace.

Mace explained the thinking behind the federal policy

"It’s essentially to provide a level playing field for all applicants across the country in all disasters," said Mace.

He recognizes it’s a complex issue.

"We understand the position of towns that find themselves caught between the two sets of regulations," said Mace. "But unfortunately our hands are tied." 

Mace says, in FEMA’s opinion, Vermont’s stream alteration permit is discretionary, meaning ANR applies the requirements at the discretion of its engineers.

David Mears is Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, part of the Agency of Natural Resources.  Mears says FEMA is at odds with ANR’s practice of relying on the professional judgment of its engineers.

"Because there’s some professional discretion in there they’ve argued that there’s no clear standard," said Mears, "which really is not the case."

Mears says ANR requires structures to be designed so they can accept the power of rivers.

"I mean these communities, frankly, are doing what we’re requiring them to do," said Mears. "They’re meeting state standards. "

The state has appealed FEMA’s decision on behalf of Townshend. If Townshend wins, then other towns in Vermont can expect to be reimbursed.

Meanwhile Townshend, Westminster and other towns have borrowed money to pay for the repairs and are paying interest on those loans that will never be reimbursed.

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