Maryville company among five cited for waterways violations

By Associated Press
April 22, 2007

NASHVILLE - The state has issued record fines against several developers, including East Tennessee-based Rarity Communities, who let mud and chemicals from their construction sites wash into waterways.

Fines up to $1 million fell on five large-scale developments last week. The amount represents the largest fines ever given out in Tennessee for storm-water pollution that didn't involve road construction.

Authorities say chemical-laden silt washing into creeks and rivers is the state's worst water-pollution problem, driving up taxpayers' costs for clean drinking water and choking out the aquatic creatures that waterways need to stay healthy.

Paul Sloan, state deputy commissioner of environment and conservation, said the state has come up with a strategy to crack down on violators by levying fines more quickly and targeting the worst offenders.

One of the developments cited is a 716-acre luxury golf course community under construction beside Tellico Lake in East Tennessee. Rarity Communities Inc. of Maryville was fined $364,000 for the violations.

Company president Michael Ross said the state went too far. "It's not toxic waste. It's dirt," he said.

The developers and a contractor are required to pay $127,900 immediately, but the state will forgive the rest if the problems are fixed. Ross said they would appeal.

He said his company does everything it can to control erosion, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, including installing flexible sheets of fencing to catch silt.

He estimated those efforts would add about $1,000 to each home in the development, where single-family home prices will average about $800,000.

"Is it worth $400,000 to keep from putting a few wheelbarrow loads of dirt in a stream or lake?" he asked.

Work began on the project in 2002 without the required state permit. Since then, the state has cited it five times.

For years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state focused their efforts on pressing industries to clean up what they poured from pipes into waterways.

After reducing pollution from industrial water, environmental regulators have turned more attention to storm-water runoff.

The state also has begun charging violators in some cases for the amount of damage done - in addition to the fines being levied.

The amounts of the fines issued last week "are unheard of coming out of" the state environmental agency, said Michael Stagg, a Nashville attorney who represents one of the companies that's been fined.

"It really is a new day if you're a developer," Stagg said.