RENO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is recommending denial of a federal wetlands permit for a highway-bypass project planned for decades to connect south Reno to east Sparks and reduce interstate congestion.
The Regional Transportation Commission launched the first phase of the $250 million project a year ago and had hoped to begin work this summer on the second phase of the five-mile Southeast Connector around the metro area’s biggest interchange where Interstate 80 meets Interstate 580 and U.S. Highway 395.
But the Reno Gazette-Journal first reported Tuesday that the EPA believes more study is needed because construction of the six-lane road could lead to increased mercury contaminant levels in the meadow wetlands south of the Truckee River.
The agency said in its formal comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the commission’s application for the final 4.5-mile leg of the bypass fails to comply with the Clean Water Act and that potential alternatives to the route through the Rosewood Lakes are inadequately analyzed.
“EPA objects to the project as proposed and recommends denial of the permit unless these issues are resolved,” Jason Brush, supervisor of EPA’s Wetlands Office, wrote in an Oct. 28 letter to the Army Corps.
Regional Transportation Commission project manager Garth Oksol said he remains confident they can secure the necessary permit from the Army Corps. But he fears that if they are forced to do a full-blown environmental impact statement, it would mean a two-year delay and as much as $10 million in higher construction costs.
“They’re recommending a denial because we didn’t provide them with all the information that they want, that they need, in the beginning,” Oksol said. “What we are tasked with is closing the loopholes the EPA sees.”
Envisioned by county planners for decades, the commission first studied five potential bypass routes in 1996 and didn’t settle on the existing route until 2008. The road would stretch from I-80 at Sparks Boulevard through the Rosewood Lakes area — where locals continue to battle the proposed closure of a golf course — on south to the South Meadows Parkway.
EPA cited the potential to worsen mercury contamination associated with historic Comstock mining mills, which operated in Washoe Valley 150 years ago. Of particular concern is the possibility mercury would accumulate in wetlands and chemically transform into more hazardous methyl-mercury, which easily enters the food chain and could pose a hazard to human health.
Those same concerns have been raised for years by the Upper South East Community Coalition, a citizens group formed to oppose the project. The group sued to block the project last summer, but it later dropped its suit to focus resources on building a case for an alternative route through the permitting process.
“It appears what EPA is saying is what we are saying,” said Kimberly Rhodemyre, a founding member of the coalition.
The Regional Transportation Commission is now preparing its response to the comments and will submit its formal application for a permit to the EPA, which will decide whether to grant the permit or require further environmental analysis in the form of an environmental impact statement.