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Commissioners won't test for arsenic at former Fielder Dam site

The Josephine County Board of Commissioners reversed itself and terminated a $135,000 contract with a private laboratory to test for toxic chemicals at the former Fielder Dam site near Wimer.

The 2-1 split decision Wednesday came after a closed-door executive session — and one day after critics challenged the commissioners on both the way the contract was awarded and the cost of it, as well as the need for testing at the expense of county taxpayers. Commission Chairman Keith Heck was against the contract termination, saying he wanted to get the first samples back before making a final decision.

Joining colleague Simon Hare, who was against the contract from the beginning, Commissioner Cherryl Walker said she was reconsidering her original position because state tests had indicated there is no threat to the county's drinking water.

She was also concerned the state wouldn't chip in to help cover the $135,000 bill for the first year of testing.

"The general fund is a very limited and finite resource," she said in an interview after the meeting. "We need to make sure we only use it when it's absolutely necessary."

The board on Nov. 4 approved the contract with the private Grants Pass Water Laboratory as part of a proposed five-year study of Evans Creek near the site of the former Fielder Dam, which had not been in use for decades when it was torn out in August to make it easier for salmon and steelhead to reach spawning grounds upstream.

Evans Creek and Fielder Dam are in Jackson County. Fielder Creek empties into the Rogue River upstream from Grants Pass, which draws its municipal water supply from the Rogue. City officials have repeatedly insisted the city's water supply is safe.

Documents submitted to the commissioners outlined the water testing project as a mixture of habitat, health risk and sediment studies. Grants Pass Water Laboratory was to monitor water level and temperature changes as well as any shift in sediment samples.

But a growing number of critics challenged both the contract and the need for testing.

Among them was Laurie Johansen, a Jerome Prairie resident who paid for testing at her own expense by a different lab. In a presentation to the board, she said her independent testing by the Neilson Research Corp. found no detectable amounts of arsenic or other toxic chemicals.

Opponents of the removal of Savage Rapids Dam in 2009 raised similar fears, which ultimately proved to be groundless.

Johansen was joined by others who questioned the cost of the contract and concerns about the bidding process.

Contrary to a widely circulated claim that the county didn't solicit bids from other labs before awarding the contract to Grants Pass Water Laboratory, the Daily Courier has learned that three different companies were sent requests to bid on the contract.

County records show that Umpqua Research Co. in Myrtle Creek, Neilson Research Corp. in Medford and Grants Pass Water Laboratory all received FAX transmissions of the bid request.

Reach reporter Eder Campuzano at 541-474-3722 or ecampuzano@thedailycourier.com.