Charlotte Douglas fined $70,000 by EPA for unauthorized construction work

by: Linzi Sheldon Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

Channel 9 has learned that Charlotte Douglas Airport was fined thousands of dollars for unauthorized construction work that violated federal laws.

Eyewitness News was the first to tell Sam Perkins with the Catawba Riverkeeper about the costly violation in a patch of wetlands at Charlotte Douglas Airport.

To extend taxiway D, airport officials applied for several permits in 2010, including one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But before the Army Corps could evaluate the project and decide how it might affect the streams and wetlands, the airport went ahead and did the work anyway -- a violation of federal law.

Perkins said the permit process is designed to protect the watershed.

"It's a very big concern," he said. "Everything from Charlotte-Mecklenburg to Gastonia to Rock Hill, Mt. Holly and on down through South Carolina, they use this as their drinking water."

"Our mission and our goal is to ensure that these sources are protected," said Amanda Jones, Regulatory Project Manager with the Army Corps.

Jones said the airport also did work in 57 more feet of stream than it applied for -- and this wasn't the first time.

"The Army Corps called the airport a repeat offender," Eyewitness News reporter Linzi Sheldon said.

"They had previous violations, yes," Jones said.

Going through hundreds of pages of records, Eyewitness News discovered that in 2007, the airport received a permit for a much bigger project -- a new runway.

But two years later, inspectors found that more than 4 acres of water and wetlands outside of the permitted area were impacted or disturbed.

To restore the area and get back into compliance with state officials, the airport had to remove more than 700 tons of sediment.

After communications with the Army Corps, the airport also put up an educational display about wetlands and permits. Right around the same time, it started the unauthorized work on taxiway D.

In response to the second violation, so soon after the first, the Army Corps told Aviation Director Jerry Orr in a letter that the airport "willfully and knowingly violated" the Clean Water Act.

Orr disagrees.

"We just made a mistake," he said.

But that mistake cost the airport $70,000 this past May in a fine from the EPA.

Airport officials said it was paid by airport money, such as funds generated from gate fees, landing fees, concessions, and parking fees.

The airport also had to restore the area it impacted around the taxiway D project, including replanting, which the Army Corps reviewed.

"We look at the area to make sure it's been restored according to the plans that were submitted to us, that all the remedial action has been done," Jones said of the restoration. "To this date, it has been."

Orr said there are about 20 airport projects going on at any given time, and that there was a miscommunication -- and lack of information -- between the contractor, airport project engineer and airport environmental affairs manager.

"How did so many people not know?" Eyewitness News asked.

"Well, it's a very simple matter," he said. "There are multiple permits and one fell through the crack."

But with multimillion dollar projects like a parking deck and others on the horizon, Eyewitness News wanted to know how Orr would prevent this from happening again on a bigger, more damaging scale.

In a letter Channel 9 obtained from Orr to the EPA, he laid out a new protocol for projects, which includes "educating the field crew" and once work starts, "frequent site inspections" to "ensure no work is being done in non-permitted areas."

"Like anything we do that doesn't pass muster, we get together and review with everyone where we went wrong," Orr said.

Like other agencies that receive permits to build on wetlands or protected areas, Charlotte Douglas Airport paid into what's called a mitigation bank. The bank funds environmental improvements in other areas to offset the impact of permitted projects.

The airport paid more $6 million dollars to offset the total impact of the new runway project and about $67,000 to offset the total impact of the taxiway D extension.