Stormwater Enforcers Draw Line in the Dirt

"Dirt can pollute," said Granta Y. Nakayama, assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. That is why the agency and the Justice Department followed up on alleged violations of runoff regulations by four major home builders.

In a June 11 press conference, the agencies announced that Centex Homes, KB Home, Pulte Homes, and Richmond American Homes have agreed to pay civil penalties totaling $4.3 million to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act's stormwater provisions.

"Too much dirt can clog fish gills, prevent light from getting through, reduce the amount of oxygen in water," Nakayama explained. "The bottom line is this: Whatever ends up on the ground can be swept up into waterways."

During state and federal reviews from 2002 to 2205, inspectors found discharges of sediment into waterbodies at construction sites in 34 states and the District of Columbia. The companies allegedly failed to obtain permits or obtained them after construction had begun. At sites that did have permits, companies allegedly failed to prevent or minimize the discharge of pollutants, such as silt and debris, in stormwater runoff.

Each company will pay the following penalties:

• Centex Homes of Dallas: $1,485,000;

• KB Home of Los Angeles: $1,185,000;

• Pulte Homes of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: $877,000;

• Richmond American of Denver: $795,000.

The bulk of the penalties will go to the U.S. Treasury; about $627,000 will be shared among seven states that joined the federal government in the settlement, according to Assistant Attorney General Ronald J. Tenpas. The states are Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, and Utah.

Pulte Homes agreed to complete a supplemental environmental project at a minimum cost of $608,000. The project will reduce the amount of sediment going into a northern California watershed and improve the habitat for aquatic life.

In addition to paying the penalties, companies must develop improved pollution prevention plans for each site, increase site inspections, and promptly correct any problems that are detected. The companies must properly train construction managers and contractors and are required to have trained staff at each construction site. They also must implement a management and internal reporting system to improve oversight of on-the-ground operations and submit annual reports to EPA.

The companies have agreed to implement programs that go beyond current regulatory requirements and put controls in place that will keep an estimated 1.2 billion pounds of sediment from polluting the nation's waterways each year, Tenpas said.

"EPA requires that construction sites obtain permits and take simple, basic steps to prevent pollutants from contaminating stormwater and harming our nation's waterways," Nakayama said. He named a few low-tech best practices that can be used, including sweeping the streets, excavating property in sections, or placing hay bales around storm drains. Permit requirements were phased in during 1992 for sites measuring 5 acres or more and during 2003 for smaller sites, according to Roxanne Smith, EPA press officer.

Improving compliance at construction sites is one of EPA's national enforcement priorities. The agency also has entered into settlements with Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The consent decrees, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, are subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court. The companies are required to pay the penalty within 30 days of the court's approval of the settlement. Copies of the consent decrees are available on the Justice Department Web site at http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

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