Ark. Multimodal Facility Clears Hurdle

On June 10, a federal district judge dismissed a suit against planners of a slack-water harbor and multimodal terminal in Russellville, Ark., that has been held up in court for 14 years and has been planned for 21 years. If the plaintiffs decide not to appeal, the way could be open for its development on an 880-acre parcel south of Russellville, Ark. It has been estimated to cost about $50 million and would occupy farmland just below Russellville and Lake Dardanelle on the Arkansas River and opposite the town of Dardanelle.

Dardanelle, a town of about 4,745, is one of the main parties that has sued to stop the intermodal facility, along with the Yell County Wildlife Federation (YCWF), in the 14-year legal struggle.

Supporting the terminal has been the River Valley Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority (RVRIFA), a regional development corporation formed by Russellville and Pope County in 1996 to promote the project; its business backers; and the city of Russellville. The task of the RVRIFA was to promote job creation in a six-county area including Pope. Conway, Johnson, Logan, Yell and Perry counties.

The terminal proposal idea goes to 1980, according to Jimmy Wood, a 30-year veteran of the Corps of Engineers and former president of the YCWF, who opposes the facility. “The original proposal was supposed to include an airport, a barge facility and truck and rail connections; it was supposed to be this huge industrial complex,” Wood told The Waterways Journal. The airport was dropped from the plan due to restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The main problem with the site, said Wood, is that it is on a floodplain that Dardanelle shares with Russellville, its neighbor across the river. Protecting the facility would require levees that would push floodwaters of the Arkansas River across the river to Dardanelle, and downriver to threaten the 7,000-acre Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, in a riverbend below Russellville, he said.

The Corps of Engineers’ determination that the project would have no significant environmental impacts triggered an initial lawsuit by the plaintiffs in 2004. That resulted in a judgment in their favor by Judge Billy Roy Wilson ordering the Corps to do another study that took more environmental factors and impacts into account.

For that study, the Federal Highway Administration took over as lead agency. That nine-year-long study, conducted by St. Louis-based Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group, also found no significant impacts and resulted in Corps approval again in November 2013. That approval triggered the second lawsuit in 2014 that was dismissed this month.

That suit accused the agencies of hiring biased contractors and accused Parsons of having an improper relationship with the multimodal authority and of “cherry-picking” the data. But U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall ruled that the selection of Parsons did not compromise the objectivity of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process.

Roy Reaves, a longtime backer of the project who remains on the board of the RVRIFA, told The Waterways Journal that he is “very excited that the project is at this stage.”

Wood calls the flood plain a “blowout area” that is necessary to relieve flood pressures. Reaves said the concerns about flooding in flood-prone Dardanelle are valid, but that a Corps hydrologist estimated that the effect of the berm around the proposed site would raise the waters of a 100-year flood by less than one inch. Reaves also says that many within the city of Dardanelle support the project and the jobs and development it will bring and oppose their city suing to stop it. He called the projected impacts to the wildlife refuge “hype.” Reaves is confident that if the project moves ahead, it will be able to acquire all the property it needs from the current owners who farm it now.

For his part, Wood doesn’t think the project will happen. “There will be so many other lawsuits from property owners who will be affected,” he told The Waterways Journal. “We have tried to get the intermodal authority to look at other locations. But this project seems to have a life of its own.”

Reaves said, “I hope the people of Dardanelle will support using their tax dollars to move this project forward instead of fighting it in court.”

Russellville Mayor Randy Horton told, “This is extremely good news that we have been waiting for a long time. Now we can start looking at the next chapter in industrial development in Russellville.”

Wood told The Waterways Journal that the plaintiffs were to meet with their attorney on June 21. The plaintiffs have three weeks to decide whether or not to appeal to the 8th District Court in St. Louis, Mo.