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Regulators step up runoff enforcement

Sean Ryan
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Regulators have a stern message for contractors: If you ignore runoff and storm-water rules, we’ll see you in court.

This week, the Wisconsin Department of Justice settled two cases against property owners and contractors that violated state laws regulating soil erosion on construction projects. The cases are the latest results of stricter state enforcement of runoff and storm-water regulations.

“At both the federal and the state level, we’re seeing an increased emphasis on proper management of storm water,” said Linda Bochert, a partner in Michael Best & Friedrich LLP’s Madison office, “and the result of that is that there is more enforcement attention being paid.”

Contractors must create plans to prevent dirt and other materials from washing from work sites during grading and excavation. Based on those plans, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issues project permits. The DNR also monitors the construction sites.

The DNR is not targeting contractors, but over the past four years, the department has pushed its 17 storm-water agents to spend less time in the office processing permits and more time in the field inspecting sites, said Mary Anne Lowndes, storm water engineer with the state DNR.

In the past, inspectors only visited the field if they received complaints, she said, but now they are doing periodic inspections of manufacturing and construction sites.

“We felt it is probably better to be out in the field to see how the plans are implemented and whether they are implemented,” Lowndes said.

Another reason for greater enforcement: Storm-water runoff agents are called to inspect sites if other DNR divisions find violations of rules covering construction along navigable waterways, she said.

Referring a case to the Department of Justice for legal action is the last resort, Lowndes said. “It either means that they blatantly didn’t apply for a permit, or didn’t apply any (best management practices).”

On Tuesday, the state settled a case (PDF) against Richlen Excavating Inc., Critvitz, and Steven Stock, who hired Richlen to dredge ponds in Marinette County. The contractor began the project without a DNR permit and allowed soil to run into nearby wetlands, killing a local trout population. Richlen will pay $22,250 to settle the case, and Stock will pay $22,500. On Monday, the village of Cambridge agreed to pay $15,000 to settle charges (PDF) that it violated erosion-control requirements on a sewer project.

In late July, the state proposed settling a runoff case (PDF) against Powers Lake Construction Co. Inc., Twin Lakes, for $85,000. The case is pending.

Contractors that want to avoid state penalties must make good-faith efforts to comply with DNR regulations, said Nick Vande Hey, senior project engineer for McMahon Associates Inc., Neenah.

“Take it seriously,” he said. “Try to do a good job. That requires a shift in thinking, I think, from the past.

That’s one thing. Certainly it adds costs to the project.”

Vande Hey said changes in regulations or enforcement often result in complaints, especially if project costs increase.

“I think change is always hard,” he said. “I think there is a need for it. I think, like anything in life, too much isn’t good, but you need to find the right balance.”

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