U.S. District Court Clarification of Clean Water Act is a Win for Wetlands
In a key win for wetlands protection, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia ruled that a logging company broke the law when it built a road and filled in wetlands without acquiring a proper permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. Conservationists hailed the ruling, and urged other timber companies to seek permits before building roads or filling wetlands to make way for new development.
“The U.S. District Court’s clarification of the Clean Water Act will help deter common abuses of exemptions to wetlands protections,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center which represented the Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper® in the case.
The issue before the court was whether the Clean Water Act allowed a road to be constructed through wetlands to provide access to the Ogeechee River without a permit from the Corps of Engineers. Just after the road was constructed, the property was sold to a third party for residential and recreational use.
In 2006, Bulloch County residents called the Riverkeeper pollution hotline to complain that this road was causing flooding on their property. Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper investigated and found that the logging company had failed to take proper precautions to prevent dirt from washing into the river, and that the road had filled in sloughs, altered the flow of water, and backed up water on adjacent property owners.
“If logging companies cut down forests or build roads for development, then they are accountable to clean water laws like any other developer,” said Chandra Brown, Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper. “They should get a permit, leave wetlands alone, and take steps to prevent polluted runoff from leaving their construction sites.”
The Court rejected the company’s claim that the road was exempt from the Clean Water Act as part of an ongoing tree farming operation or forest road. If the logging company had properly applied for a permit, it would have been required toavoid filling wetlands and take other steps to protect neighboring lands. “We hope timber companies will now think twice before going into the real estate business,” said Brown. “And those that do go forward will remember their responsibilities under clean water laws.”
The case will now move to the penalty and remedial phase. Penalties for violations of the Clean Water Act, payable to the US Treasury, can be as much $32,500 per day of violation. Remedies can include remediation and mitigation.
About the Southern Environmental Law Center The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.
About Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper's mission is to protect the rivers and ensure clean water throughout the entire Ogeechee watershed. In pursuit of these goals, OCRK strives to amplify the voices of concerned citizens and to strengthen their efforts to protect their rivers and their communities. By raising awareness and aggressively responding to critical issues with the commitment and support of this dedicated network, OCRK is a voice for the Ogeechee River watershed and its people.