A federal review has delayed city's efforts to repair eyesore.
Lakeland's attempt to restore an oft-closed city beach has been delayed as federal officials determine whether the project could hurt a rare mussel, the Higgins eye, found in that stretch of the river.
News came Friday that a project permit is likely to be approved next month, but city officials are losing patience.
Tattered black fabric on the beach is strewn in the sand and floats offshore in the St. Croix River, remnants of an old contamination cleanup that failed during flooding last year. The beach, located just north of the Interstate 94 bridge, gets worse each time the river rises a few feet.
In April, the city applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to put in fill and install riprap and plants along the shoreline to stabilize it and stop the beach from washing away.
After waiting for months, the pressure is on: City officials fear they could lose $30,000 in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money to fix the beach parking lot and Quixote Avenue, a gravel road leading to the beach, as part of the restoration, if the project isn't in the works by September.
"Stabilize the area is really what we're trying to do," said frustrated Lakeland Mayor Brian Zeller. "Right now, we're losing sand and gravel into the riverway because it's not stabilized."
Contamination from a rare form of asbestos on the beach was brought to the city's attention in the late 1990s. It's believed to have come from an adjoining residence, where a homeowner was removing asbestos and putting it in a pile on his property, which then flooded.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hired a contractor for the original cleanup in 2000 and 2001. It was to remove the asbestos and cap that area with a filter fabric, with sand on top, as a safety measure, officials say.
But the project's poor design didn't hold up in the flood plain -- in part because there was no riprap to hold it in place as flood after flood hit the beach, government officials agree.
Now, some federal officials and a neighboring homeowner, Jim Space, say they worry that leftover asbestos could be re-exposed if it isn't completely excavated, a remedy that remains uncertain.
Lakeland's permit application has been delayed because of concern for the endangered Higgins eye pearly mussel, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and also the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues such permits.
The Fish and Wildlife Service wants more information from the city as to how any sand and gravel going into the river could affect the Higgins eye mussel bed, said Andrew Horton, a biologist with the agency.
That's what has made the project drag on a bit, he said.
"I tend to think that we go a little too far on some of those issues," Zeller said in response. "The concern is that we would do the project and the project would fail, and that would impact the mussels. It seems a little bit ridiculous to me, because the current project has failed."
Doing something would be better than doing nothing and letting gravel and sand continue to flow into the river, Zeller said. He also said citizens should be able to use their city beach, which often is partially roped off or completely closed.
Horton said a review is required by federal law and under a recovery plan for endangered species, but he believes that Lakeland will get a permit in August. "We're definitely moving in that direction, so I think it will be wrapped up very shortly," he said.
The Higgins eye, listed as an endangered species in 1976 and now further threatened by the invasive zebra mussel, is the focus of a strategy by the Fish and Wildlife Service to save it. The feds want to make sure that riprap installed by Lakeland will continue to protect "a highly dynamic area" that seems to flood as often as twice a year, Horton said.
The $30,000 FEMA money was to prepare the gravel beach road and parking lot, which is part of the restoration project, the mayor said.
"We've suffered quite a bit of damage from the floods over the years, but in particular the last two floods, we've suffered a great deal of damage," Zeller said, noting that the FEMA reimbursement money triggered the federal review by the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Those agencies have been a little bit challenging to work with, quite candidly," he said.
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038