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The Dirt on Sediment Controls

Brown runoff at Potomac sites signals countywide problem.

Fawsett Road resident Heidi Dubin had neutral feelings at first for the three large homes under construction at the corner of Fawsett and MacArthur Boulevard. The site was bound to be developed eventually, after all.

Then the rains came.

After anything more than a very light rain, brown runoff from the construction site pours out of the sites drainage pipes, overflows culverts and washes out the unpaved road.

“At first when they started developing the corner I thought, ‘Well is it worse or is it not worse I can’t tell.’ But recently I’ve been seeing it’s worse,” Dubin said. Stepping outside after a heavy storm, she said, “It was just a lake.”

The runoff problems at Fawsett are not unique. March’s rains sent brown streams flowing down from construction sites throughout Potomac. The issue in such cases is two-fold: effectively managing stormwater, a responsibility jointly managed by several county agencies, and controlling the escape of silt and sediment, which is chiefly enforced by the county’s Department of Permitting Services.

A COUNTY-ISSUED sediment control permit is required for any project that disturbs 5,000 square feet (about one-eighth of an acre) or more of land, or entails moving 100 cubic yards or more of earth movement. The permit is required for any new residential or commercial building, or accessory structure such as a garage or tennis court, even if it disturbs fewer than 5,000 square feet.

Such permits cost between $300 and $1,000 depending on the size of the project and mandate a specific construction sequence, the installation of silt fences and traps, and timely land restoration.

“Montgomery County was a real leader in getting sediment control requirements as a part of land use or land construction and that was back in the 1970s,” said Rick Brush, water resources plan review manager at Permitting Services. The laws are derivative of state and federal regulations and overseen by the Maryland Department of Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Permitting Services inspectors try to visit every site at least once every two weeks, and inspect the sites following heavy storms even if two weeks have not elapsed, Brush said. If the site is not compliant with runoff regulations, the builder will normally be issued a notice of violation and given a short time to remedy the problems. If they are not fixed, the builder will receive citations, starting at $500, and many of which can be repeated each day until the problems are fixed.

“The state and federal government have much larger fines if they get involved,” Brush said.

If violations show serious negligence, the builder can be issued citations right away, without a notice of violation and chance to remedy, Brush said. In the most serious cases, Permitting Services can issue a stop-work order.

“Notices of violation are very common. I’d say citations are pretty frequent too,” Brush said. “Stop work orders are much less frequent and typically those are done when the violations are severe.”

In fiscal year 2004, Permitting Services sediment control inspectors issued over 1,200 notices of violation, over 100 stop work orders, and fines totaling more than $91,000.

ALL THAT may be little comfort to residents affected by the runoff. Peggy Dennis, a neighbor of Dubin on Fawsett said that even restrictive sediment controls are no use in a heavy rain.

“The bottom line is sediment control only works when you have a limited amount of water,” Dennis said. “The sediment control regulations would work fine if there were also controls on the quantity of water being discharged. But because the quantity is so large the quality of water takes kind of second precedence.”

On Fawsett, the runoff “simply goes under around or over the silt mesh, so the silt mesh becomes completely useless,” Dennis said.

Brush admits that there are limits to what the controls can do.

“Sediment control devices are only effective to a degree. If a storm is large enough that it over loads the system” there is little remedy he said. “Systems aren’t built to the largest storms. They’re built to what are considered to be typical storms.”

He also stressed that seeing brown water leaving a site does not necessarily mean that the site is in violation. Some amount of sediment will always escape and especially fine sediments, which color the water, can pass through silt fences.

“There’s no doubt that the ideal would be to trap all sediments. But there’s just nothing in our technology that would allow us to do that, to trap every bit of sediment that’s leaving the site,” he said.

The Fawsett property has been inspected regularly according to Sediment Inspection and Enforcement Manager Mike Reahl at Permitting Services, who said he did not know of any citations or notices of violation issued there.

Reahl said he was aware of citizen concerns there after they contacted his department as well as the Department of Public Works and Transportation and the County Executive's office. He said a response from the executive's office was being prepared.

EVEN THOUGH people may not immediately think of dirt and soil — natural substances — as being pollutants, when they reach streams and rivers they have far-reaching environmental impacts, said Bryan Seipp, director or restoration for the Potomac Conservancy

“It’s one of the major issues that not only the Potomac River faces but also the Chesapeake Bay,” Seipp said. Sediment remains suspended in water for a long period of time and, in the case of some finer clay sediment, indefinitely. That prevents light from reaching aquatic vegetation important to river and bay ecosystems. When the vegetation dies off, so do animal species that depend on it, and the process has a domino effect. The sediment also coats underwater rocks that are home to tiny macroinvertebrates that have an ecological role. And the soils washing into the water often contain nutrients and fertilizers not natural to them, causing problems like algae blooms.

It’s a problem from an agricultural standpoint, too. “When we’re losing sediment usually were losing the top bit of soil which is usually our most productive soil. …. We eventually get down into lower soil horizons which aren’t as productive or as rich in resources for plants to live on,” Seipp said.

On April 5, Potomac resident Barbara Brown noticed a large amount of orange-brown water flowing through the valley that separates her house from that of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder next door. The runoff was flowing into the canal and spreading out in a large semi-circle of discolored water.

The water was visibly flowing out of Snyder’s property, apparently from a construction site that was not visible but could be heard from Brown’s property. Brown called the National Park Service, which sent two rangers who observed the runoff and contacted Snyder.

Snyder has recently come under criticism for cutting more than two acres of trees on the slope leading down to the canal behind his house. The tree cutting took place in a 200-foot zone protected by a federal conservation easement. It was allowed under a deal brokered with the National Park Service, but in violation of county laws.

The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission issued a $1,000 civil fine and has been investigating further punitive action. Additional fines could include a civil penalty of up to $1 per square foot or more than $100,000. Officials say that a deal is in the works with Snyder that would include some fines along with a stronger, perpetual easement.

Jeffery Mann, the Permitting Services inspector who visited Snyder’s property to view the brown runoff, said that he toured the site and found no violations and that the matter had been closed out both by Permitting Services and the National Park Service. “There was no fresh sediment,” Mann said, but “sediment control measures are only so effective.” He directed all further questions to his supervisor.

BRUSH SAID that residents who spot possible violations at a construction site — such as silt fences in disrepair — are encouraged to contact Permitting Services and request an inspection, but reminded them that entering the site constitutes trespassing. Contact information for Permitting Services’ inspectors and supervisors is available on the department’s Web site at www.montgomerycountymd.gov under “Departments.”

Other organizations, like the Save the Bay Foundation, agricultural groups, and the Montgomery Soil Conservation District, are taking a role in tracking and limiting sediment runoff.

“It’s on the radar screen of a lot of people. It’s definitely something that needs to be addressed on a large scale,” Seipp said. “It’s certainly a major pollutant.”