FORT YATES, N.D. — The culvert that washed out from under a highway on the Standing Rock Reservation on July 9, killing two South Dakota residents when they drove into the chasm, was identified for replacement seven years ago.
The culvert on Bureau of Indian Affairs Road 3 was bowing but not considered dangerous, said Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the tribe’s director of transportation and planning. The culvert and road above it fell victim to erosion after a 7-inch rain fell overnight.
“It wasn’t the failure of the culvert structure itself,” His Horse Is Thunder said Thursday, Aug. 1. “It was the washing around — I guess the word is scouring — of all the dirt around the culvert. It just ate around the culvert, and then finally eroded around the culvert enough that it shoved it through.”
The two people who died that night were both from Mobridge, S.D. Trudy Peterson, 60, was headed north from Mobridge to start a shift as a nurse at the Indian Health Service in Fort Yates. Jim VanderWal, 65, was driving south, hauling mail to Mobridge from Bismarck.
Project costs and a lack of funding delayed the culvert repair project and many others on the reservation, His Horse Is Thunder said.
“BIA roads and tribal roads are severely underfunded,” he said.
There is a backlog of projects, referred to by the BIA as deferred maintenance, which means officials know there are roads and culverts that need to be fixed, according to His Horse Is Thunder. The bureau estimates the deferred maintenance costs nationwide at more than $280 million, and the Federal Highway Administration and Congress haven’t appropriated enough money to keep up with the maintenance, he said.
“We go to Congress every year,” he said. “They just don’t give us enough money to take care of the issues.”
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said his office has been in contact with Standing Rock leadership about the road and the need for enhanced road maintenance in general. Funding formulas for tribal roads, which tribes negotiate with the Department of Transportation, are part of the transportation bill and fall under jurisdiction of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Hoeven, who is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he was able to get the Environment and Public Works Committee to include increased funding of $50 million instead of $30 million in the transportation bill for BIA road maintenance and the Tribal Transportation Program’s Safety Fund. The bill has been voted out of committee and is expected to be taken up by the Senate soon, Hoeven said in a statement.
The project on BIA Road 3, known locally as the Kenel Road, was bid in April and carried a price tag of $1.45 million, His Horse Is Thunder said. The original construction plan was to leave the culvert in place to allow the flow of water while a new culvert was placed. With the culvert gone, water will have to be diverted during the project.
A double-cell, concrete box culvert will replace the 7-foot galvanized steel culvert. Each cell is 10 feet wide. The culvert will be made in 30 sections, and the company making them can make only one section per day. Each has to cure 30 days before being placed. Orders placed before Standing Rock’s have to be filled first, and it will be two or three weeks before work starts on the culvert sections, His Horse Is Thunder said.
“They do not have box culverts sitting around waiting to be purchased and put into the ground. They are specially constructed per project,” he said. “That is our biggest time issue, is the actual construction of 30 sections.”
The project has an expected completion date of Oct. 31, His Horse Is Thunder said. In the meantime, travelers going south from Kenel can use a gravel road that goes west just north of the washout. Travelers going north from Mobridge can get to Bismarck or Fort Yates by going to McLaughlin and then north.
About 565 vehicles traveled the highway daily before the washout, according to North Dakota Department of Transportation estimates.