Walker County fined $76,000 for missing construction project deadline

Walker County fined $76,000 for missing construction project deadline

June 24th, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Already footing a bill much bigger than it ever wanted, Walker County will now have to pay Georgia's environmental agency an extra $76,000 for a project it hoped to finish three years ago.

In a June 16 letter to Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, Environmental Protection Division Director Judson Turner wrote that Walker County officials have 30 days to pay the fine, the result of the county missing a construction project deadline by about five months.

This payment should be the final stack of cash on a mountain that grew much higher than county officials anticipated. In 2007, public records show, the county believed it could build a hiking route called Durham Trail for about $200,000 — half of that covered by a Georgia Department of Natural Resources grant.

Instead, records show, the county spent about $475,000 building the trail. And it received only $40,000 in grant funding. And it also has to pay $140,000 in fines, including the $76,000 the EPD is now pursuing.

That payment will be the final step of an environmental investigation into Walker County that began more than three years ago.

"It's as wrapped up as it's ever going to get," said Bert Langley, EPD's director of compliance. "It's one of those that doesn't make everybody happy, so maybe we hit some middle ground."

But Walker County officials say the dispute is not over. In a statement released to the Times Free Press on Tuesday evening, Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said the county did not finish 76 days behind schedule. She said the county actually finished 40 days ahead of schedule.

But whose schedule is she following? In Heiskell's statement, she said that the county's engineering firm — Consolidated Technologies — made its own list of days when it could and couldn't work. Based on their own calculations, they finished the work before their deadline.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell speaks at a news conference at the Walker County Court House Annex in LaFayette, Ga., in this file photo.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell speaks at a...

Photo by Maura Friedman /Times Free Press.

"Walker County is confident that EPD and its parent agency, Georgia DNR, will be fair and reasonable as we negotiate the differences that have surfaced in the time calculation," Heiskell said. "We look forward to meeting with EPD/DNR and resolving the issue."

Jill Wyse, a nearby homeowner, alerted the EPD to the project in March 2012. While construction workers worked on the section that crosses Rock Creek, she said, they dumped dirt into the water, turning it brown.

After environmental investigators looked at the construction, Langley said the county broke state laws and Department of Natural Resources rules. He said the county needed to consult with the EPD before working anywhere within 50 feet of Rock Creek.

Dirt dumped into the water threatens the ecosystem, Langley said. The dirt creates a mud bottom at the base of the creek, killing phytoplankton and invertebrates — the trout's food.

The construction workers also re-routed where the trout traveled, Langley said. They couldn't swim upstream anymore, making it harder for them to mate.

In September 2012, the EPD fined Walker County $65,000. Langley also told county officials they needed to fix some of the problems they are accused of creating.

The county chose to build a pedestrian bridge that would allow hikers to walk across the creek without disturbing the water. In a consent order, Heiskell promised that the county would finish the bridge by Sept. 11, 2014, or face a $1,000-a-day fine.

The county did not finish the bridge until the beginning of February, putting taxpayers on the hook for a potential $150,000 penalty. Turner, who did not return a call seeking comment, chose to charge the county about half that much.

Langley said Turner probably didn't count rainy or snowy days against the county, days when county workers couldn't have worked anyway.

Heiskell has said several times in past years that the county is not at fault.

In September 2012, after the first fine, she said the county didn't make Rock Creek dirtier: "We really didn't do anything wrong. We didn't dump anything in the creek. We cleaned up the creek. I think people should be proud of this."

In November, after a Times Free Press article highlighted that the county was incurring a second fine from the EPD, Heiskell told LaFayette radio station WQCH that she wasn't going to have to pay any money: "No fine is payable and it's not true that fines are increasing at a thousand dollars per day."

In April, Heiskell said on local cable access channel UCTV that the county should never have had to consult with the EPD in the first place.

"The Rock Creek in Walker County doesn't have any trout in it at all," she said.

But Langley said that's not true; fish were in the creek when construction began.

"[The Department of Natural Resources] hadn't stocked in that stream for a while," he said. "But I physically have seen trout in the stream myself."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.