Thursday, October 11, 2012
State officials on Friday, Sept. 28, visited, inspected and signed off on grant-funded work in the Rock Creek watershed on Lookout Mountain.
That the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has OK’d the project should end a dispute between the county and state agency tasked with protecting the state’s natural resources.
It has been a dispute that some consider as much about political as environmental concerns.
The area in question was once home to mountaintop mines and a railroad that transported coal from the Durham community to coke ovens in Chickamauga. County crews clearing debris left from last year’s tornadic storms as well as from 1995’s Hurricane Opal and rebuilding a collapsed culvert had released sediment into the creek.
“We have done the mitigation and corrective actions that the EPD had requested,” county coordinator David Ashburn said.
The original work was being performed to improve part of a trail network that could eventually stretch from Cloudland Canyon State Park through Chickamauga and, via Fort Oglethorpe and East Ridge, potentially intersect with the Brainerd Greenway and Chattanooga’s Riverwalk.
Residents opposed to this rails-to-trails project filed a complaint with the EPD concerning the degradation of water quality generated by the work being done to clear the creek’s bed and banks.
“We received a citizen’s complaint, talked with the county and inspected the site ourselves,” said Bert Langley, district operations coordinator for the EPD office in Cartersville.
The county, in coordination with the state and nonprofit conservation organizations, for years has assisted in ongoing trail building efforts at a variety of sites on Pigeon and Lookout mountains and in the Zahnd Wildlife Management Area.
The EPD inspection at Rock Creek performed during March and April of this year found fault with the county following an agreement reached in 2008 concerning construction-related storm water runoff along the creek.
Langley said that any project exceeding one acre must have a permit and that during the inspection it was determined the project at Rock Creek was slightly oversized.
“There were also concerns and differences of opinion about what consisted of maintenance of an existing roadway,” he said. “We looked at the entire project.”
Langley said the county’s efforts were considered a “significant violation” and warranted enforcement action.
Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said that when the EPD notified the county that the Durham Trail site would be inspected at the request of residents living two miles distant, a voluntary stop work order was imposed.
“EPD cited best management practices that appeared to be neglected by the county,” she said. “However, we were in the process of implementing those practices at the site when we voluntarily halted work at the request of the EPD.”
The county’s response was that best practices had been followed and that work to clear debris was beneficial, not detrimental, to Rock Creek and that all necessary state and federal permits had been obtained.
EPD’s citation of the best practices in question contributed to the need for the county to prepare a corrective action plan and submit it to the EPD. That agency approved the plan, work on the project continued and, as of last Friday, is considered done.
But the county has yet to pay a related penalty. Its crews must perform $65,000 of work on environmental projects approved by the Department of Natural Resources.
“This is a negotiated settlement, not a penalty,” Langley said. “Hopefully everybody learns something in the process.”
While admitting no wrongdoing, the county plans to accept the fine, which will be paid by having county employees using county-owned equipment perform environmental projects within Walker County.
“We’ve asked the [Department of Natural Resources] to suggest projects that will be beneficial to the county, the DNR and the general public,” Ashburn said. “We’ve done all kinds of work with the DNR on Pigeon Mountain where they paid for the equipment and we provided the labor. That made the mountain a better asset to the public. It could involve cleaning a ditch or making a bait field for hunters. This is no different.”
There are some restrictions on the environmental work now necessary to be in compliance with the EPD’s decision. Work cannot be done in the Durham Trail/Rock Creek area and cannot be performed on already planned projects.
“Rather than money going to the state’s general fund, these resources go to the local area,” Langley explained. “It could be for things like providing more public access to rivers and access for continued stocking of fish, or it could be for stream restoration in an area other than Rock Creek.”