Columbia County's authority to issue development permits and enforce erosion and sediment control laws is in jeopardy over what Georgia's Environmental Protection Division calls lax and incomplete enforcement.
An investigation, which included unannounced visits to local construction sites, was launched after state regulators found recurring violations that included silt washing into creeks, failure to honor buffer zones and incomplete paperwork on permits.
"In the past, we've noticed a lot of issues in Columbia County, and we see the same types of problems, misunderstandings and misinterpretations," said Al Frazier, the director of EPD's East Central District office. "Because there was a concern on EPD's part, they went ahead and asked for a review."
Although EPD regulates "non-point" pollution sources, such as construction runoff that can fill streams with silt and hasten erosion, Georgia law allows counties to become "local issuing authorities" by adopting county ordinances that mirror state law. Columbia County is one such community.
However, counties that don't enforce those rules could face possible sanctions, said Larry Hedges, the director of EPD's Non-Point Source Program.
Possible disciplinary actions could include revocation of the county's ability to issue development permits, which would halt or delay all new construction. EPD also can place a county on probation or require various other compliance measures, he said.
Mr. Hedges notified Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross of the state's findings in a certified letter dated Thursday, and a copy was obtained by The Augusta Chronicle under Georgia's Open Records Act.
"Based upon a June 8, 9 and 10 program overview, EPD has determined Columbia County is not adequately implementing its program or enforcing its erosion and sediment control ordinance," Mr. Hedges wrote. "This determination is based on the results of EPD's investigation and the status of sites viewed in the field."
Violations were found at eight construction sites that were supposed to be under the county's inspection program.
EPD's letter asks that the county bring those offending sites into compliance - through corrective measures or enforcement - within 30 days, and also provide a written strategy for retaining its authority to issue development permits.
Columbia County Engineering Director Jim Leiper said county officials are working diligently to administer the local program.
He noted, however, that development is the county's largest industry, and this spring and summer have been extraordinarily rainy, causing more problems than usual.
"I don't expect anyone can have 100 percent compliance all the time," Mr. Leiper said. "It's a matter of how effective Best Management Practices are with rainstorms, and we've had some real gully washers."
The county has expanded its enforcement staff in recent years and now has a full-time person assigned to commercial sites, in addition to two inspectors who work mostly residential areas, he said.
"We've written more and more citations in the last year, and we're working toward getting better voluntary compliance," Mr. Leiper said. "One of the things we've been able to do is stimulate some local businesses that specialize in this sort of thing and can help with the problems."
County officials typically issue warnings for violations such as ineffective silt fences. The most serious violations go to Columbia County's Magistrate Court, where typical fines can range from $300 to more than $1,000.
EPD enforces the rules differently, through the execution of negotiated "consent orders," which typically involve much larger fines. For example, the Columbia County Board of Education was fined $4,500 in May for stormwater discharge violations at its new Evans Middle School site on Hereford Farm Road.
Columbia County might have its share of problems, but it is by no means alone, according to environmentalists, who say non-point source pollution has reached epidemic proportions in the state.
"Dirt is the leading source of pollution in Georgia, and over the years it's become clear that lack of enforcement is a prime contributor," said Justine Thompson, the director of the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest, an environmental watchdog group.
"We've encountered situations where county officials are so tied in with developers that they look the other way," she said. "But we've also seen dramatic understaffing and a widespread, routine misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the law. Put all that together and you have a crisis."
Runoff and non-point source pollution are devastating to the environment on many levels, said Jill Johnson, an environmental advocate for the Georgia Public Interest Research Group.
Silted streams can pollute drinking water and drive up treatment costs, she said. Erosion can also kill vegetation and affect the health of stream life, including fish. Silted streams lose their ability to handle stormwater flow, and can increase flooding problems.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.