Walker County, Ga., has to spend $65,000 on environmental projects as a state agency's penalty for releasing sediment into Rock Creek on March 26 from trail construction work done by a county crew.
The sediment was deposited where Rock Creek meets the Durham Trail, a nonmotorized path that's being built along the right-of-way of an old railway line that carried coal mined from Lookout Mountain to coke ovens in Chickamauga, Ga.
The county crew was building up the old railroad bed where it had broken down in 1995 after the remnants of Hurricane Opal caused the creek to swell at old stone and timber culvert.
To build the trail over Rock Creek, the county rerouted water back through the old culvert and also installed an 8-foot-diameter, roughly 40-foot-long metal culvert next to it to handle overflow if Rock Creek floods.
But the county didn't get a permit for its design and didn't have adequate controls for sediment and erosion in place, said Bert Langley Jr., manager of the Cartersville, Ga.-based Mountain District Office of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
"We were not real impressed, frankly, with the design they did with the culverts," Langley said.
He would have preferred one large culvert in the channel that Opal created in Rock Creek, a trout stream - though Langley said the old culvert appears to allow fish passage.
"Instead of assessing a monetary penalty, we agreed to let them do [environmental] projects," Langley said, adding, "It can't be something they planned on doing anyway."
Walker County officials held a news conference Wednesday afternoon that included a tour of the site. The county admitted no violations or wrongdoing in the Sept. 7 consent order it reached with the state agency.
"We really don't think we did anything wrong," Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said. "We didn't dump anything in the creek. We cleaned up the creek. I think people should be proud of this, frankly."
Philip Schofield, a project manager with Dalton, Ga.-based CTI Engineers Inc., helped the county come up with a corrective action plan that calls for installing an arched metal culvert upstream of the trail to help protect the old culvert that was built more than 100 years ago for the railroad.
"You can't do work in a creek without releasing some sediment," Schofield said of the work that resulted in the penalty.
Jill Wyse, the Lookout Mountain resident and Durham Trail opponent who reported the sediment spill, said she plans to appeal the state's order.
"I think they need to do more to restore the creek," Wyse said.
Lulu Land Trust Director Bobby Davenport said he appreciated Heiskell's support for the trail that he said would expand access to public lands.
"The whole controversy was all about the recent political campaign," said Davenport, referring to trail opponents who hoped Heiskell would lose in the recent Republican primary election.