TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County officials failed to effectively enforce soil erosion laws on a construction site in Acme that repeatedly sent clay-laden sediment into Acme Creek and Grand Traverse Bay.
A letter from a Department of Environmental Quality official tells Bruce Remai, the head of the county’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Department, that his department was deficient in dealing with problems on a construction site at M-72 and Lautner Road and urges him review compliance and enforcement procedures.
“It appears that the (Grand Traverse County Enforcing Agency) has not effectively escalated enforcement on this particular site in a timely manner and in such a way as to ensure a prompt return to compliance," wrote Justin Bragg, an environmental quality analyst for the DEQ, in the Nov. 3 letter.
Clay sediment spilling off the site worries both environmentalists and residents who worry that the particles could choke off plants and wildlife and change the bottom of Grand Traverse Bay.
A vote by Grand Traverse County commissioners Monday night to contract out soil erosion inspections could reduce the department's responsibilities soon. Currently two part-time employees conduct site inspections.
Commissioners said the move would save money and allow them to respond to an increase in demand during the summer and a decrease in the winter.
"Don't tell me we need to have an expensive crew like that all the time," said county commissioner Dan Lathrop. "It can expand when we need it and contract when we don’t."
Commissioner Charlie Renny voted against the change because he said he worried it would hurt economic development in the county.
"I do have complaints from both developers and residents about inspections and the time it takes to get stuff done going through the construction codes office," Renny said.
County Finance Director Dean Bott said he hadn't yet calculated whether the move would save money or how much it could save. The Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Department is projected to generate $100,000 in revenues from permit fees, but expend more than $175,000. The difference comes out of the general fund, Bott said.
The decision comes after commissioners learned of the letter from the DEQ.
Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said she was most concerned that county prosecutor Bob Cooney didn't know about the letter until commissioners told him about it Tuesday.
Commissioner Larry Inman said the letter came as a surprise to him as well and raised questions about trust and ethics with the department.
"Up pops this letter nobody knows about, that states they didn’t follow the plan and that there are violations and that there needs to be a written remediation plan and it needs to be submitted and corrective action needs to be taken immediately. Guess what? Nobody knows anything about it," Inman said.
Commissioner Herb Lemcool said he learned about the letter at about the time it came out.
State officials sent the written reprimand after they inspected the site and found “significant” violations. Those violations were not dealt with even after the county sent a compliance notice to the developer, notifying them of problems that had to be fixed.
The letter notes that the county is responsible for enforcing Part 91, a law that regulates sediment on construction sites.
Remai sees things a little differently. In an email to County Administrator David Benda, he said that the county’s role is minimal.
“As you can see there are multiple permits and multiple agencies involved in this project. The Grand Traverse County Soil Erosion Department's role in this project is very small compared to the other agencies involvement,” Remai wrote.
Remai did not return requests for comment.
County inspector Pete Bruski did issue a notice of violation to Steve Schooler, the director of construction at the Village of Grand Traverse on Nov. 7. The notice allows the county to act on its own to fix the problems, issue fines or file injunctions.