Walker County leaders drag feet in paying hefty environmental fine

Walker County leaders drag feet in paying hefty environmental fine

March 1st, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Walker County resident Jill Wyse, top center, stands atop covered riprap and talks about how the county has disregarded EPD rules as they go forward with a trail over Rock Creek, just over a mile upstream of her land.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

More than seven months after a state-sanctioned deadline to pay a $76,000 fine, Walker County, Ga., leaders have not cut the check.

Bert Langley, director of compliance for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said his department is still waiting for Walker County to pay a penalty for missing a 2014 deadline to fix damage to a creek. The county was supposed to pay the fine by July 16, according to a consent order from EPD Director Judson Turner.

Langley, who helped investigate the environmental damage, said he does not know why Walker County hasn't paid.

"That is being handled strictly through our director's office at this point," he said. "I can't say the why, what or how of what's going on."

Turner and EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers did not return an email seeking comment Monday. Chambers also did not return a phone call. Neither did Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell nor County Attorney Don Oliver.

The EPD began investigating Walker County in March 2012, when a woman living on Lookout Mountain told the agency county employees poured dirt into Rock Creek while building the Durham Trail hiking route. Members of the EPD found the county was, in fact, working near a trout stream without required approval from the environmental agency.

Langley told the Times Free Press in 2014 the dirt threatens the ecosystem by creating a mud bottom, killing the phytoplankton and invertebrates that trout eat. EPD investigators also found the county rerouted the path the trout take through the creek, and the fish struggled to swim upstream during mating season.

In September 2012, six months after the EPD began investigating the issue, the agency fined Walker County $65,000. It also told Heiskell the county needed to fix the problem it had created, so she decided to build a pedestrian bridge over the creek, allowing hikers to walk past the water without kicking in more dirt.

As part of the agreement, the county needed to finish the project by Sept. 11, 2014. If it did not, it would face an additional $1,000-per-day fine. Ultimately, workers finished the bridge and some other parts of the creek's rehabilitation in February 2015, 150 days after deadline.

Turner decided to fine Walker County $76,000 instead of the potential full amount. Though Turner has not told the Times Free Press why the EPD's fine was lower than a $1,000-per-day penalty, Langley said last year that he believes the decision considers weather problems: The EPD did not punish the county for days when the rain or snow was too strong to work.

In June, Heiskell told the Times Free Press in a statement she did not plan to pay the fine. By the calculations of the team the county hired to build the bridge, they were not actually behind schedule. In fact, she said, the county was 40 days ahead of schedule.

Heiskell said at the time she planned to negotiate the fine.

"Walker County is confident that EPD and its parent agency, Georgia [Department of Natural Resources], 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."

Not including the $76,000 fine, the county's construction of Durham Trail cost more than it expected. In 2007, according to public records, the county planned to build the trail for $200,000 — half of it covered by a state grant.

Instead, as of March 2015, records show the county spent $540,000 on the trail, with grants covering $40,000.

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