A White County businessman has paid $22,500 to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for allegedly causing erosion in a tributary of the Chattahoochee River north of Helen.
Bert Langley, manager of the EPD’s Mountain District office, said Terry Sims was cited for encroaching on the 50-foot buffer of a stream near Ga. Alternate 75.
Langley said EPD inspectors responded to a complaint at the site in September 2007. They found that Sims did not have a land disturbance permit and had not installed any controls for erosion and sedimentation, such as silt fences.
"He ended up getting a good bit of sediment into the (creek)," Langley said.
He said inspectors never figured out the exact nature of the project Sims was working on.
"He claimed it was going to be an agricultural site and would therefore be exempt from the erosion and sedimentation rules," Langley said. "But we have not found any evidence for that, and he was not able to provide any."
Sims, who operates Cool River Tubing, said the creek is on 25 acres that he owns, and the changes were for his personal use.
"It was a little farm I had, and the creek banks were washing away," he said. "I was not trying to develop it; I was restoring it."
Sims said he contacted the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2007 and asked if he could put some riprap along the banks.
"They said it was OK if I didn’t put it in too large of an area," he said.
But the EPD, not the NRCS, is the environmental regulatory agency for water quality in Georgia, and Sims did not approach the EPD to obtain a permit.
"To be honest, a lot of the EPD people don’t even know the regulations themselves," he said.
Sims said in addition to lining the banks with riprap, he "dropped a few big boulders in the stream to create habitat for trout, and I drained a little wetland area."
Darcie Holcomb, director of headwaters conservation for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said she visited the site after receiving complaints about it in 2007.
"It appeared that (Sims) was trying to create a waterfall," she said. "But if you’re moving rocks around, you’re changing the hydrology of the stream."
Water protection regulations are more stringent in the North Georgia mountains because all creeks and rivers are considered to be trout streams.
Holcomb said it’s important to prevent dirt from getting into clear streams.
"Sediment covers up the little organisms on the bottom that serve as food for the trout," she said. "It also clogs the gills of the trout. And sediment can carry pollutants."
Langley said it took more than a year for Sims to reach a settlement with the EPD over the consent order.
"It shouldn’t have taken this long," Langley said. "We had several meetings with him and we agreed to disagree, and he has submitted payment."
The fine was unusually steep, Langley said, because this was Sims’ second run-in with the EPD. After a tornado spawned by Hurricane Katrina tore through Helen in August 2005 and knocked down trees along the Chattahoochee River, Sims put up shelters so his tubing customers would have some shade.
But the EPD said Sims illegally installed concrete platforms and stairs within the 50-foot buffer, and he was forced to remove the structures.
"Helen is important, right there at the headwaters of the Hooch," Langley said. "We’re constantly finding people who want to put in steps or other encroachments right on the river."
Sims said he knows people who’ve done things far worse than what he was accused of. "The thing about the EPD is that it’s spot enforcement," he said. "They single out certain people and ignore others."
Sims said he eventually had to acquiesce to the EPD’s terms because they threatened to take him to court.
"They’ve definitely got a lot of power, and I’m not a rich man," he said. "You’ve got to play by their game or you’re out, you know?"