EPA digging up dirt on gravel pit water pollution

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether a Kenai construction company's gravel pit activity was the source of turbid water released into Two Moose Creek and the Anchor River last month, and whether fill material illegally was deposited on wetlands.

Phil North of the EPA's Soldotna office confirmed Thursday that the agency is following up on a formal complaint filed Oct. 20 by Cook Inlet Keeper, a Homer-based nonprofit agency that monitors water quality within the inlet watershed.

Keeper Director Bob Shavelson said his organization responded after receiving a citizen complaint about water problems in Two Moose Creek, which flows into the South Fork of the Anchor River. Both waterways are important habitats for anadromous fish.

According to Shavelson, he and Keeper staff tested Two Moose Creek and found "high levels of turbidity" there and in the Anchor River downstream.

Keeper chartered a plane and took aerial photographs of the gravel pit area that appear to show turbid water entering Two Moose Creek and ongoing fill operations. Those photos have been turned over to the EPA. They can be found on the Internet at Keeper's Web site, www.inletkeeper.org.

Shavelson also said a background check found the gravel pit suspected of causing the problems lacked permits to discharge polluted effluent and polluted storm water to Two Moose Creek, neither was there a permit to dredge or fill wetlands.

North visited the gravel pit at Mile 160 of the Sterling Highway, just south of Anchor Point near Black Water Bend on Monday. Interviewed Thursday, he declined to discuss specific details of the investigation, but he did say the complaint involved a gravel pit owned and operated by Brown Construction Co. Inc., a Kenai firm with headquarters at Ciechanski Road. He confirmed that Brown did not have the necessary permits for discharging turbid water into Two Moose Creek and dumping fill onto nearby wetlands.

North said the pit has been the subject of investigation before. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dealt with a previous violation in 1999, he said. At that time, Two Moose Creek had been diverted to a new ditch and material had been discharged onto wetlands.

North said according to Brown, another firm had been operating the pit in 1999 under a lease. Nevertheless, as the landowner, Brown was responsible and required to see that Two Moose Creek was put back into its old channel, its banks restored and the diversion ditch refilled.

North said at least some of the old ditch remained when he visited the pit last month, but Two Moose Creek was flowing in its old channel.

Don Brown of Brown Construction said the company has filed an application for a water discharge permit. That action was taken subsequent to EPA's site visit, however.

"We are doing that right now," he said.

Brown confirmed that the 1999 incident had involved a lessee, but that his company was responsible for restoration. Not all of that restoration work has been completed, he said.

As for fill being placed on wetlands, Brown said that to his knowledge there has been no new fill placed on wetlands. However, Keeper said one of its photographs appeared to show active wetlands filling in the southeastern corner of the gravel pit.

The current investigation continues. North said he was to meet with the EPA's Anchorage enforcement coordinator and attorney this week. They will decide if a violation will be issued.

If so, Brown could be subject to penalties of up to $32,500 per day per violation. Typically, violators are required to restore any areas that can be restored, North said.

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