One of the Country’s Largest Clean Water Act Penalty Agreements Signed in Rabun County, Georgia Case
ATLANTA, GA- The United States Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia announced that “Wright Brothers Construction Company” and the Georgia Department of Transportation (“GDOT”) have agreed to pay a $1.5 million dollar penalty and spend more than $1.3 million to offset environmental damages to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) in Rabun County, Georgia. The civil penalty is one of the largest ever under the CWA provisions prohibiting the unauthorized discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States.
The complaint alleges that between 2004 and 2007, Wright Brothers, with approval from GDOT, piped and buried all or portions of seven primary trout streams in violation of the CWA. Wright Brothers was hired by GDOT to dispose of excess soil and rock generated during two GDOT highway expansion projects in northeast Georgia. The contracts between GDOT and Wright Brothers specifically required Wright Brothers to obtain written environmental clearance from GDOT prior to using any site as a fill site. GDOT approved sites that included streams considered to be waters of the United States.
Burying and piping streams can destroy valuable aquatic habitat and threatens water quality. The reduced water quality may have adversely impacted downstream trout populations, which are a major recreational resource to the region. All of the streams that were filled are tributaries of either Lake Burton or Tallulah Falls Lake.
“Construction projects, including important expansions of highway infrastructure, must be conducted in full compliance with the Clean Water Act, which protects our nation's waterways, aquatic habitats and recreational resources from harm,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. “This settlement will restore and mitigate pollution of area streams for the benefit of the people of Georgia.”
“Dumping dirt and waste rock into our nation's waters threatens water quality and aquatic habitats,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today's settlement will restore damaged streams, protecting trout habitat and recreational opportunities for the people of northeastern Georgia.”
“Through this enforcement action, we are sending a strong message about the importance of protecting headwater streams in the Southeast,” said Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, EPA Region 4 Regional Administrator. “The streams impacted by the violations are designated by the state of Georgia as primary trout streams, which provide essential cold water habitat for a variety of species, support the robust recreational fishing industry in north Georgia, and thereby impact the health and well-being of many families.”
In Atlanta, U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said, “The citizens of Rabun County deserve to have our tributaries and streams kept free of unauthorized fill material and similar pollutants. This significant monetary agreement underscores the commitment of this office and the Justice Department to our water supply, its life sources, and the environment.”
Under the settlement, Wright Brothers and GDOT must perform injunctive relief measures, including purchasing 16,920 mitigation credits at an estimated retail cost of $1.35 million to offset the impacts to waters of the United States that cannot be restored. The credits must be purchased from “mitigation banks” servicing the area in which the violations occurred. A mitigation bank is a wetland, stream, or other aquatic resource area that has been set aside for the purpose of providing compensation for impacts to aquatic resources that occurred under a federal, state, or local permit.
Wright Brothers and GDOT will also remove piping from and restore the bed and bank of 150 feet of stream channel that was impacted from their disposal activities. The estimated cost of this work is $25,000. When complete, the restorative measures required under the settlement will mitigate the 2,800 feet of stream impacted by the CWA violations.
The settlement is subject to a 30 day comment period and final court approval. A copy of the consent decree will be available on the Justice Department website: www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html
For further information please contact Sally Q. Yates, United States Attorney, or Charysse L. Alexander, Executive Assistant United States Attorney, through Patrick Crosby, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Attorney's Office, at (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the HomePage for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia is www.justice.gov/usao/gan