0517erosionaudEPD district manager Bert Langley explains why the DOT has to pay such a large fine.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is paying the Georgia Environmental Protection Division $62,500 in fines for violations in Hall and Forsyth counties, despite the fact that there was no actual pollution.
On May 5, the EPD discovered that the DOT had never applied for a land disturbance permit or submitted an erosion control plan for the cable barrier project along Ga. 400 in Forsyth County.
That 12-mile project, which places dividers in the median to prevent crossover crashes, is almost finished. A similar project has just started on I-985 in Hall County and will cover 22.3 miles from the I-85 split in Buford to the exit at U.S. 129.
"As soon as (DOT’s) environmental compliance side heard about (the problem in Forsyth), they immediately shut it down and self-reported the one in Hall," said Bert Langley, manager of the EPD’s Mountain District office in Cartersville.
DOT spokesman Mark McKinnon said work resumed a day or two later, "since they knew we were in the process of filing the paperwork."
But why hadn’t that paperwork been filed before the projects began?
"We thought the permits we already had in place would cover it," said McKinnon. "We will be paying the fines, because we’re not in compliance, even though we felt that we were."
To Langley, the DOT’s explanation just doesn’t hold water.
"They’re the biggest land disturbing agency in the state," he said. "They certainly know the environmental regulations, because they deal with them on every project."
McKinnon said the DOT believed the cable barrier projects were so insignificant that the regulations didn’t apply.
"It’s only a 4-foot-wide concrete strip (to anchor the cables)," he said. "It’s not much different from installing a walkway in front of your house."
Langley said a new construction project of less than 1 acre or a maintenance project of less than 5 acres is exempt from requiring a land disturbance permit.
But the DOT was only looking at the width of the concrete slab, not factoring in that it was many miles long and its total area would comprise substantial acreage.
"These (cable barriers) are really unusual projects for us, because we’re used to getting land disturbance permits for very large construction projects," McKinnon said. "We didn’t think we needed a permit in this case. The EPD thought otherwise. It’s a difference of opinion. Now that we know what they want, we won’t be making that mistake again."
Langley called the incident "another case of the DOT not communicating internally as well as they should."
As for the amount of the fines, Langley said the EPD was following its standard policy for setting fines, which looks not only at environmental damage but also at the violator’s previous record and at their experience level. The latter considers whether the violator should have known what the rules were.
"(The DOT) gets nailed on recidivism (repeat violations) and experience level," Langley said. "We’ve executed orders over and over with the DOT. We’re seeing the same kinds of violations that should not happen."
Langley said the DOT almost always gets a much higher fine than a municipality or a private company, because the EPD has no other leverage over the state highway agency.
"We frankly don’t negotiate order much with the DOT anymore," he said. "In a case where they’re working without a permit, there’s not much room for negotiation."