You are hereMadera Co. faces $500k fine for road project

Madera Co. faces $500k fine for road project

Published online on Tuesday, Sep. 29, 2009
By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee
 Madera County faces a potential state fine of more than $500,000 for allowing erosion runoff to despoil mountain streams during a road project in the Sierra foothills in summer and fall 2008.

The state Regional Water Quality Control Board said county officials didn't get all the permits required to widen Road 200 near the hamlet of O'Neals, and failed to prevent dirt and sediment from flowing into streams that ultimately feed into Millerton Lake.

The proposed fine of $510,600 represents the amount that Madera County saved by cutting corners and not doing the work correctly, said Lonnie Wass, a supervising engineer for the water board's Central Valley region.

The fine isn't the largest levied in the Central Valley region over the past year. In November 2008, the board sought a penalty of nearly $4 million against a wastewater-treatment plant in Lake County for violating discharge rules and failing to submit monitoring reports to the state.

But it's hefty compared to most of the board's penalties, which generally amount to less than $20,000.

If the fine stands, "it would be an extreme hardship for Madera County," said Johannes Hoevertsz, the county's road commissioner.

"We're laying off people in this county as it is," Hoevertsz said. "We'd rather have that money available for other projects ... and keep that money in Madera County for something more productive than fines."

Problems with the Road 200 project were detailed in a complaint issued Friday by the water-quality board.

Work on the $5.5 million project, funded by Madera County's Measure A, began in July 2008 without a required federal permit for storm-water discharges.

Wass said work at the site went on for more than a month before the county secured the permit -- and only after state officials reminded the county about the requirement.

Over the following months, Wass said, state inspectors expressed concern about excavation and grading work in the construction area. They also said erosion-control measures were installed incorrectly and did little to prevent sediment from running into streams.

Because silt and sediment in streams can clog fishes' gills, smother eggs or disrupt spawning areas, "discharges from the site certainly caused injury and/or death of aquatic species using the waters," the complaint said.

"We continued to inspect through the spring storm season and into the summer, and it's still kind of a mess," Wass said. He added that since the state issued a cleanup order earlier this year, county officials have been cooperative and are making progress on repairs at the work site.

Hoevertsz acknowledged his department suffered some missteps as it undertook the $5.5 million project.

"Now we're working the best we can to get this thing solved," Hoevertsz said. "We're doing what we can, and we're willing to do more to mitigate more of the alleged damage."

But, he added, "there's no way you can prevent erosion completely" in this type of project.

A water board hearing on the proposed fine is set for December in Rancho Cordova, but Hoevertsz said Madera County will petition the water board to delay the hearing to allow the two sides to discuss possible settlement options.

"We think the water board is being somewhat unreasonable," Hoevertsz said. "We need to come up with some reasonable alternatives."

Wass said the proposed fine already reflects a discount. The water board calculated the county's maximum liability as more than $7 million for the various violations.

"We start with the maximum penalty, but there are factors in the water code to reduce those," Wass said. "We've taken it to what we believe is the minimum we can reduce it to."

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