Walker County, Ga., Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said Friday that she is not on the hook for an environmental fine against the county that is snowballing every day.
Heiskell said that Environmental Protection Division officials promised to ignore the county's deadline for finishing a project to correct problems at Rock Creek, the trout stream where the county tried to build a hiking trail two years ago.
Heiskell also said the EPD was going to give the county 60 extra days to finish the project, that the project's delay is actually the EPD's fault, and that in reality the county isn't on the hook for the fine at all: The county's contractor is.
EPD officials, meanwhile, say Heiskell is lying.
The issue dates back to March 2012, when a Walker County resident alerted EPD officials that the county was doing construction at Rock Creek as part of its plans to build a hiking trail. EPD investigators found that the construction workers dumped sediment into the water and rerouted the trout stream, making it impossible for the fish to swim north to mate.
The EPD fined Walker County $65,000 and told officials to create a solution to the problem. The county agreed to build a pedestrian bridge so future hikers will walk over the creek, not through it. The county also agreed to finish the project by Sept. 11 of this year.
According to a consent order, the county has to pay EPD a fine of $1,000 for every day after the deadline that the project is not finished. Sixty-five days after Sept. 11, the pedestrian bridge has still not been built, and the project's lead engineer believes the county won't complete it until the end of the year.
That potentially could lead to a fine of about $100,000 -- in addition to the $65,000 the EPD already has fined Walker County.
But Heiskell said earlier this week that this won't happen. She said EPD Director Jud Turner promised her during an Oct. 1 meeting that he would ignore the fine and give her an extra 60 days to complete the project.
EPD Director of Compliance Bert Langley, who was also at that meeting, said that is not true.
"[Turner] made it clear that our first concern is to get the project completed and that we would discuss the penalties based on how we saw the project proceeding," Langley said. "That's where we still are set. Walker County did have a deadline established in September."
Heiskell said the project has been delayed because the EPD's lead engineer that was going to oversee the project retired. Langley said that is not true.
Heiskell also said that, if the EPD fines anybody, it won't be Walker County. She said the project's contractor will be on the hook. Langley said that is not true, either.
"We have no way to assess anything with the contractor of the county," he said. "If I signed a contract with you to do something and you subcontracted it, it's not my problem what the subcontractor does. I'm coming after you."
After hearing Langley's comments, Heiskell reiterated that the county won't have to pay the fine.
"(Langley) said it himself," she responded, referring to that Oct. 1 meeting. "I've got witnesses."
Heiskell added that the EPD was inappropriately punishing the county because of pressure from Jill Wyse, a resident who spoke out against the county's construction near Rock Creek.
"Bert Langley didn't want this project done from the beginning," Heiskell said. "This is all because of one woman. The EPD is afraid of her. I don't know why. She's not very scary."
When Wyse heard Heiskell's statement, she said Heiskell's facts were backward.
"I agree this is all because of one woman," she wrote in an email. "The one woman she is referring to can only be herself. Seriously, if she is referring to me, I would simply point out that any intelligent person knows that I do not control Walker County's construction activities that polluted Rock Creek and I do not control the [EPD] that determines compliance or noncompliance with its regulations."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.