EPA stands up for SC wetlands

More than 100 acres of wetlands illegally filled on coast, says agency

11/28/2012 12:00 AM

11/28/2012 7:50 AM

The US Environmental Protection Agency says coastal landowners have illegally filled or dredged more than 100 acres of wetlands near Myrtle Beach, a bustling resort that again is drawing scrutiny over the impact of development on swamps and bogs.

EPA records show that five landowners filled or dug up wetlands while building two roads, a lake, a sand mine, a horse farm and at least one other project west of the Grand Strand. Among those cited is a major road-paving company. Another is a development company, records show.

All told, the 123 acres of wetlands filled, dug up or degraded in Horry County is significant, the EPA said, and rivals that of any single proposal to fill wetlands in South Carolina today.

To remedy the problem, the EPA is requiring the landowners to restore the wetlands at their own expense — estimated by the agency to total about $285,000 in South Carolina. Fines could result if the work is not done, records show.

The federal agency’s actions in Horry County were among 17 across the Southeast citing landowners for wetlands violations. With five violations, South Carolina and Georgia had the most offenses announced this week by the EPA’s Atlanta regional office. In North Carolina, wetlands violations were cited at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Some of the SC violations date to 2005 and were characterized this week by an EPA spokeswoman as “severe.’’ The agency declined Tuesday to say if more cases were pending in the Palmetto State.

“By taking these enforcement actions, we are sending a strong message about the importance of protecting wetlands and waterways,” EPA regional administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming said in a news release.

Wetlands destruction is a major issue in South Carolina, which has lost tens of thousands of acres of the soggy depressions since the mid-20th century to development, road construction and farming. That’s why the government now requires permits to destroy a wetland. Wetlands provide wildlife habitat, soak up floodwaters and filter polluted stormwater before it reaches rivers.

The EPA’s actions in Horry County follow multiple state and federal agency investigations in the Myrtle Beach area during the past 12 years. State and federal regulators also have looked into unpermitted drainage of wetlands by developers and conversion of wetlands to lakes by highway construction companies along the Grand Strand. Today, South Carolina policy makers are looking at ways to better protect isolated wetlands across the state.

Efforts to reach most of those named most recently by the EPA were unsuccessful Tuesday, but EPA enforcement records show that not all of the property owners admits to the wetlands violations. Even so, the landowners agreed to settle cases by restoring wetlands, records show.

Those cited by the EPA, include:

• Palmetto Paving Inc., a Conway company and historically one of the state’s major asphalt-paving contractors. The EPA says the company cleared and filled 26 acres of wetlands near the Waccamaw River during work on a sand mine. Records show the company blames a consultant for providing poor advice. Sand mines supply earthen material for road and construction work.

Lewis Group LLC, of Aynor. The EPA says a previous owner of the Lewis property, Atkinson Developers LLC, cleared and filled wetlands without a permit. The work “impacted” about 19 acres near Lake Swamp, which drains to the Little Pee Dee River not far from the Galivants Ferry community. It occurred during establishment of a horse farm. The Lewis Group has agreed to restore the property.

• Wesley and Edward Allen, of Aynor. The EPA found that 56 acres of wetlands were impacted by filling and dredging near Aynor. The area is part of a swamp not far from the Waccamaw River. A road was being constructed, records show.
• Ben Reavis, of Conway. The EPA says Reavis dredged and filled about 6 acres of wetlands, as well as land along a creek to build a small lake. Reavis said most of the wetlands he was cited for impacting were created by beavers. He got in trouble with the EPA for tearing out the beaver dams, he said. Reavis said the EPA worked with him and he now believes the issue is resolved.
• Bass Waccamaw River Ranch LLC, an Horry County company. The EPA says Bass Waccamaw filled wetlands while building a road in an area about eight miles northeast of Conway. The company’s work affected 15.6 acres of wetlands.

Put in perspective, the amount of wetlands filled illegally in Horry County isn’t much less than the amount proposed for filling to construct a gold mine in Lancaster County. The Lancaster project is believed to be the largest in South Carolina proposed in recent years. But unlike in Lancaster County, the EPA says the Horry landowners did the work without getting federal wetlands permits.

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