Construction woes plague Squaw Valley project | SierraSun.com
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Construction woes plague Squaw Valley project

Joelle Babula, Sun News Service

With orders to halt construction of the Funitel, Squaw Valley Ski Corp. still plans on opening this state-of-the-art skier transportation system Saturday.

“They (Squaw Valley) have two outstanding stop work notices on their project from Placer County Public Works,” said Patrick Perkins, an associate engineer with Placer County Public Works.

However, according to Alex Cushing, founder of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., this is simply not true.

“The problem is, we’ve had conflicting orders from different agencies,” Cushing said. “We were ordered to blast material from CAL-OSHA.”

According to Cushing, the Funitel was not meeting CAL-OSHA codes because the lift was too low. It was four feet off the ground rather than the required six.

CAL-OSHA is an agency that certifies the safety of equipment for public use.

“We were ordered by CAL-OSHA to correct it,” Cushing said. “And now it (the Funitel) has passed 1,000 percent. Inspectors (from CAL-OSHA) have been here all week and didn’t find a single thing wrong with it. It’s like a Swiss watch.”

John Short, with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, also said that Lahontan has issued stop work orders on the Funitel project.

“Twice we’ve taken away their permit, but it’s been given back,” Short said. “We feel that it’s better they just finish the project and get out of there.”

Although Lahontan has returned work permits to Squaw Valley for the Funitel project, Short said they are no longer allowed to do any additional ground disturbance during the construction.

“We’re allowing them to still do work, but it has to consist of cleaning up,” Short said. “They’re only allowed to stabilize any previous ground disturbance.”

According to both Short and Perkins, Squaw Valley violated original conditions of the Funitel construction plans by blasting chunks of the mountain not cleared for removal, by bulldozing sediment over the edge of the mountain and into Squaw Creek and by cutting down trees they weren’t supposed to.

“At the end of summer, Squaw Valley saw they had about 8,000 yards of material near tower four that wasn’t on the plan to be removed. They overlooked it,” Perkins said. “They began blasting and the county issued a stop work permit.”

Perkins, however, said Squaw Valley went through the proper repermit process at that time and the county reissued the permit.

But, according to Perkins and Short, more violations followed. Following the blasting of part of the mountain, Squaw Valley was allowed to toss large chunks of sediment over the edge, but the fine, smaller sediment was supposed to be hauled away.

“We had problems with them disposing of soil from the excavating site,” Short said. “They were pushing soil into Squaw Creek and actually causing a water problem. It’s an important habitat and can effect aquatic life. It’s also not aesthetically pleasing to have a big plume of dirty water in the Truckee.”

Perkins agreed.

“Once they (Squaw Valley) blasted the material, they weren’t supposed to bulldoze it off the side. They were supposed to haul it off,” he said.

According to Perkins, a stop work order was issued to Squaw Valley following the improper disposal of sediment in Squaw Creek on Oct. 29. Squaw Valley didn’t comply with the stop work order so another one was issued on Dec. 4, Perkins said.

Nancy Wendt, however, the president of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., said there is a sediment pond in place to collect the debris, but it’s difficult to comply with agencies sometimes who demand certain regulations but aren’t on the site every day to see the construction difficulties.

“It’s the typical thing where a regulatory agency will tell you to follow a certain regulation, but they’re not on site to see the problems,” Wendt said. “There is a sediment pond in place and there is no adverse water quality here.”

According to Perkins, however, Squaw Valley has continued to violate agency regulations.

“Two weeks ago, Squaw realized they didn’t blast enough material, but despite the stop work permits, they went ahead and blasted anyway,” Perkins said. “When we pointed it out to them, they continued to work anyway.”

Wendt said the ski corporation is trying to satisfy all regulatory agencies, but is, “stuck between conflicting jurisdictions.”

“We’ve satisfied the state (CAL-OSHA), but now we’ve annoyed the county,” Wendt said. “We’re working on the concerns with the county and think everything will be resolved.”

Regardless of the blasting of rock and debris to make more room for the Funitel, Squaw Valley is still required to correctly deposit the fine sediment and silt from the construction.

“We did go out there and try to work with them,” Perkins said. “It (the debris) was so close to the creek, we wanted to stabilize that material. We presented other options to them, but for some reason, none of those other measures were implemented.”

According to Short, enforcement action needs to be taken against Squaw Valley, but Lahontan hasn’t decided yet what they’re going to do.

“We’re going to be stepping into heavy enforcement mode until they realize they can’t be doing this anymore,” Short said. “We’ve been working with Placer County and both agencies are fed up. We’re very disappointed with the continued violations that are going on up there.”

Other violations connected to the Funitel project include the removal of trees that were not specified in the original project plans, Perkins said.

“They cut down trees they’re not supposed to. Two or three trees were originally identified that had to come down,” Perkins said. “They decided another half dozen had to come down and just started cutting without calling anybody. I stopped them, but it was already too late, the trees were down.”

For every tree that’s cut down in Squaw Valley, however, ten new ones are planted, Cushing said.

“We were right in the middle of a job, we had ten men out there and the trees were in the way,” Cushing said. “It’s five more trees, what’s the big deal? We notified them (Placer County) right away after.”

These problems between Squaw Valley Ski Corp. and certain agencies regarding the Funitel aren’t the first.

“We’ve had a number of enforcement problems with Squaw Valley and collected some money from them from a diesel spill,” Short said. “I don’t understand the mentality myself, they have certainly had enforcement actions taken against them.”

Several years ago, Squaw Valley was fined by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board for a diesel spill at the base of the Red Dog area, said Kevin Kratzke with Lahontan.

“We fined them for inappropriate clean up action and for trying to cover it up,” Kratzke said.

Short said action will be taken against Squaw Valley for violations regarding the Funitel, but Lahontan is trying to “get outstanding violations with previous problems with Squaw Valley squared away first.”

“They (Squaw Valley) are certainly doing a poor job of environmental stewardship, they have more violations than any other ski resort in the area,” Short said.

The Funitel, which opens this weekend, is a $20 million machine that replaced the 35-year-old gondola that used to give skiers access to the top of Squaw Valley. The Funitel can operate in winds up to 75 mph which means the upper mountain won’t be subject to wind closures in the future.

“The real story here is this monumental project,” Wendt said. “We’ve spent $20 million on a lift that’s the first of its kind in North America. It’s been a Herculean effort and we hope the community is behind us, if not, than what are we doing this for?”

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