The Georgia Department of Transportation and one of its contractors will pay more than $2.8 million in federal penalties and environmental offsets for dumping a million cubic yards of highway project debris into streams.
GDOT and Wright Brothers Construction Co. Inc., of Charleston, TN, have agreed to pay a $1.5 million penalty and spend more than $1.3 million to repair and offset the environmental damage and resolve the violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA), under a U.S. District Court consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ).
Wright Brothers Construction
|The expansion of U.S. Route 76 in Rabun County, GA, was one of two projects whose debris led to the dispute involving the contractor, Georgia DOT and federal authorities.|
The settlement’s civil penalty is one of the largest ever under CWA provisions prohibiting the unauthorized discharge of dredged or fill material into U.S. waters, according to EPA and DOJ.
Founded in 1961 by James and Robert Wright, Wright Brothers Construction Co. performs site preparation, grading, excavating, highway and heavy construction services. The company works with bridges, base construction, sewer and water lines, and other structures.
Wright Brothers President Stephen Wright said in a prepared statement that neither GDOT nor the company admitted any guilt in the case.
“Wright Brothers contends every action taken was designed by professional engineers and with the knowledge, approval and/or permission where applicable” of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Georgia Department Natural Resources, GDOT’s Office of Environmental Location, and Rabun County, the statement said.
“We have been entangled with the EPA for 5 years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with no end in sight,” said Wright. “We settled because it looked like we were going to run out of credit before the U.S. Government.
“Other than that, my Grandmother told me as a young man if I had nothing nice to say, say nothing.”
In a statement issued Wednesday (Dec. 14), GDOT denied any violation of the law but said it was settling the case because “protracted litigation would have served no purpose.” The agency said that it and Wright Brothers would share the settlement costs.
“The department has implemented multiple new policies and practices in recent years to safeguard Georgia’s environment, and this matter is best resolved now so that we can fully focus on the future,” the statement said.
The statement noted that Wright Brothers had selected the disposal sites and said both parties disagreed “with the assertion that these fill sites negatively impacted area streams.”
GDOT said that it had made “concerted efforts, particularly over the last four years, to further strengthen its environmental compliance efforts” and that it has an “outstanding overall compliance record,” with “more than 98 percent” of its projects “conducted in full environmental compliance.”
The complaint alleges that, with GDOT’s approval, Wright Brothers buried some or all of seven primary trout streams in violation of the CWA between 2004 and 2007. GDOT had hired Wright Brothers to dispose of excess soil and rock generated during two GDOT highway expansion projects in northeast Georgia.
Contracts between GDOT and Wright Brothers specifically required Wright Brothers to obtain written environmental clearance from GDOT before using any site as a fill site. GDOT approved sites that included streams considered to be waters of the United States.
These actions resulted in the unauthorized disposal of more than one million cubic yards of excess rock and soil, impacting about 2,800 linear feet of stream, EPA said.
The water damage also may have harmed downstream trout populations, which are a major recreational resource to the region, EPA said. All of the affected streams are tributaries of either Lake Burton or Tallulah Falls Lake.
Repairs, Credits Ordered
Under the settlement, Wright Brothers and GDOT must perform injunctive relief measures, including buying 16,920 mitigation credits at an estimated cost of $1.35 million to offset the impacts to waters that cannot be restored.
The credits must be purchased from mitigation banks servicing the area where the violations occurred. A mitigation bank is a wetland, stream, or other aquatic resource area that has been set aside to provide compensation for impacts to aquatic resources that occurred under a federal, state, or local permit.
Wright Brothers and GDOT will also remove the piping from and restore the bed and bank of a 150-foot stream channel damaged by the dumping. The estimated cost of this work is $25,000. When complete, the restoration activities and injunctive relief measures 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.
‘Restore Damaged Streams’
“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.”
Added Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno: “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.”