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Columbia County developer could face penalties for environmental violations

Posted: January 13, 2016 - 12:01am
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A case involving Magnolia Valley Plantation in Evans has been under investigation by the EPA since March 2014, according to EPA documents.   Special
Special
A case involving Magnolia Valley Plantation in Evans has been under investigation by the EPA since March 2014, according to EPA documents.

The U.S. Environmental Pro­tec­tion Agency has forwarded a case against a Columbia County developer involving violations of the Clean Water Act to the U.S. Department of Justice for further – possibly criminal – action, according to documents obtained through an open records request.

The case involving Magnolia Valley Plantation, off William Few Parkway in Evans, has been under investigation since March 2014, when EPA officials made an initial visit to the development, according to EPA documents on file with Co­lum­bia County.

At the time of that first inspection, however, the development had already been under a stop work order from the county since December 2013, when inspectors discovered evidence of significant erosion and sediment deposits filling a stream bed that fed into the Uchee Creek basin below the site.

An April 24, 2014, letter from county Engineering Services Direc­tor Matt Schlachter to land owner and Magnolia Valley Planta­tion developer Aaron Sullivan says the stop work order was “issued due to significant amounts of sediment discharged into waters of the state and or wetlands.”

Those erosion and stormwater control problems were documented by the county and later by the EPA with numerous photos, according to an e-mail to Schlachter from Sean Ire­land, an environmental engineer with the EPA’s Clean Water En­forcement Branch.

“There is indeed an overwhelming amount of sediment deposited in the tributaries that lead to Uchee Creek, starting at the very top of the watershed and extending approximately 4,000 feet to the confluence,” Ireland wrote.

After Sullivan and his consultants made corrections and repairs to the sites stormwater management system, the county lifted the stop work order in the summer of 2014, but the EPA inspections continued and a “Notice of Violation” was issued to Sullivan on Dec. 19, 2014, documenting numerous failures and violations of the Clean Water Act.

Most of those violations had to do with failure to control water runoff at the construction site, but the notification also alleged that Sulli­van had failed to comply with Sec­tion 404 of the act by “discharging dredged or fill material into jurisdictional waters of the United States” without a permit.

“This occurred during construction activities on the site, where you used earth moving machinery to mechanically clear wetlands and streams without the required Section 404 permit,” according to the letter from James D. Giattina, the director of the EPA’s Water Protection Division. Giat­tina also noted that such violations could result in unspecified civil and criminal penalties.

More than a year later, it appears the federal government is on the verge of some sort of enforcement action, which involves the Justice Department.

In a Nov. 16 e-mail, the EPA’s Ahmad Dromgoole told Columbia County Storm­water Utility Manager Gary Bennett “that DOJ has taken up the Magnolia case and is moving forward with it. They are looking to send Mr. Sulli­van their initial notice in the coming weeks.”

Bennett said Friday that he has been told to expect a notice from the Justice De­partment as early as next week, but he does not know what action might be taken.

An EPA spokeswoman said it was against department policy to comment on open cases.

Sullivan said Friday that he has heard little from the EPA since the Notice of Violation was sent to him in 2014. He heard about possible Justice Department action Thursday night when he was seeking approval to develop another section of Magno­lia Valley from the Colum­bia County Planning Commis­sion.

At the meeting, Planning Com­mission Chairman Jim Cox read a memo from Coun­ty Administrator Scott Johnson that discussed the Clean Water Act violations and the apparent impending enforcement action from federal authorities.

“Realizing the complexity of zoning matters, this information may be taken into consideration in your decision to approve or deny the present request,” Johnson’s memo said.

“We were flabbergasted,” Sullivan said Friday about the Planning Commission’s denial of his petition and the news that the Justice Department was involved.

Sullivan attributed his trouble with county inspectors to certain officials seeking to do favors for his competitors in the residential development arena.

“Everything the EPA has asked us for we have given,” he said. “We were set up.”

Sullivan said that over the past two years he has continued to work with county inspectors to keep the construction site in compliance, even while individual lots were being sold to builders and homes were being constructed.

About 60 of 142 lots in the Magnolia Valley Plantation development have homes under construction or finished, according to county documents. According to county inspection reports, Sul­li­van was able to stay in compliance with county inspectors except for a brief period when he was under a stop work order in November 2014.

That continued until Dec. 1, when the county again placed the site under a stop work order because of sediment runoff problems, according to Bennett.

“We went out in Decem­ber and found some areas where sediment was leaving the site. We marked areas that were needing maintenance. From that site visit we determined that the plans needed to be revised to provide adequate sediment control,” he said.

Sullivan said he believed his most recent problems had been resolved after county inspectors performed a walkthrough Wednesday. The county inspection log, however, indicates the site failed once again.

“When they did the walk through on Wednesday, they were looking at some of his measures to see if he had repaired them. But what the state law says if the plan is proven to be inadequate, which we believe the plan is inadequate, then it must be revised in order to beef up the (best management practices),” Bennett said.

Sullivan said each time he works to get back into compliance, it seems the county finds another problem that didn’t exist before.

He has letters from two certified engineers who have examined the site and concluded that the stormwater plan is adequate and the runoff was due to exessive rainfall, not from faults in the stormwater protections used at the site.

“We’ve done every single thing they’ve wanted us to do,” he said.

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