Corps: Nichols lacked permit to move ferry

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders launched the superstructure of the new state ferry Tokitae into the cold waters of Holmes Harbor, and now find themselves in hot water with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Freeland boat building company didn’t have a permit to build the long structure to launch the 2.5 million pound Tokitae, and now must answer to the Corps.

In a letter dated March 5 addressed to Matt Nichols, company CEO, Bruce Estok, a colonel for the Corps and the district engineer, advised that “installation of structures, including temporary structures, within navigable waters of the U.S. requires a Department of the Army permit.”

The superstructure was placed on top of a device that slowly crawled along roughly 600 feet of ramp built on top of temporary I-beams to a waiting barge. An independent moving company oversaw the process, but Nichols Brothers as the property owner is responsible, according to the Corps.

“I consider this work to be in violation of federal law,” wrote Estok, in a letter obtained by the Record. At first access to the letter was denied, but the Corps relented when public records issues were raised.

The launch happened Saturday, March 2, but apparently didn’t catch the Corps entirely by surprise. Estok alluded to a staff investigation of worked planned, and pictures provided by Nichols Brothers on Feb. 25 of the I-beams seated on stanchions on the existing Nichols ramp.

It’s just that Nichols never obtained the necessary permit.

Another Corps official, Patricia Graesser, claims Nichols never asked for a permit.

“We still need information about how they came to be doing the work,” she said. “They had not applied; it was just reported to us.”

The Corps was notified of the work by Jay and Bernie Hale, Holmes Harbor residents and long-time critics of how Nichols Brothers conducts its boat building business.

In a March 4 letter to the Corps, Jay Hale alleged, “Nichols has been expanding and operating in the shoreline/marine area by taking actions that require permits without getting one, getting caught and then receiving an after-the-fact permit as part of the corrective action for not getting the permit in the first place.”

Hale sent the Corps several pictures of the superstructure loading process.

Prior to receiving the letter from the Corps, Nichols Brothers executive Bob French said the Corps was communicating with the company for a couple of weeks prior to launch.

“They were asking about the procedure; we just answered,” French said. “We informed the Corps what our time frame is working with the tides. It’s all down (recorded).”

He did not immediately return a call after he received the Corps’ letter.

The Corps’ letter from Col. Estok demands that the temporary structure be removed, but that was already done immediately after the project left the yard, French said.

The superstructure was loaded onto the barge Saturday evening, March 2 and arrived at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Vigor, the main contractor for the ferry, quickly “married it up with the hull,” French said of the superstructure. It’s expected to take a year before the boat is finished and ready for service. Nichols employees went immediately to work on a tug being built.

Meanwhile, Nichols Brothers has to answer a number of questions demanded by the Corps “to assist in the evaluation of this violation,” as Estok wrote, including reasons the work was started before obtaining a permit. The company has 30 days to reply.


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