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Ditch or tributary?
Work near Mill Creek ditch is backed by EPD, angers OCRK
Another area of the ditch, here, holding more water. - photo by Chandra Brown

An environmental group thinks something fishy is going on at a work site near a ribbon of water connected to Mill Creek, from upstream at Harry Hagan Road to downstream of Hwy. 119 just north of Pembroke.

The Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper calls the water a tributary of Mill Creek. County officials say it’s a man made ditch and isn’t protected by buffers -- and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has backed the county.

The EPD’s initial ruling incensed Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper Executive Director Chandra Brown. But after reevaluating the site at Brown’s request, the EPD changed their tune slightly.

The EPD told the county prior to the commissioners’ Sept. 4 board meeting that they were required to manage the site to better preserve the ditch’s waters.

Brown said she had not yet heard anything specific from the EPD regarding this, but was glad to hear some headway was allegedly going to be made with the site.

The Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper (OCRK) first sent out two complaints about the county’s actions during the beginning of August. The letters went to Bryan County, which serves as the Local Issuing Authority (LIA), and to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

"This constitutes the second notification to Bryan County as the LIA regarding a major land disturbance and stream buffer violation along a tributary of Mill Creek," Brown wrote in an email to Neil Smiley of Bryan County Engineering and Inspection on Aug. 17.

Brown said she was glad a concerned Bryan County citizen was the one to bring the problem to OCRK’s attention in the first place.

"We need people out there, not only bringing problems to us – but also letting our elected officials know. Residents want to go fishing and swimming without having to worry about bacteria contamination; they need to be the ones to let the government know," she said.

Brown explained that Bryan County, as the LIA, is responsible for enforcing the "dirt laws" on county construction sites.

"It’s clear to me there’s a problem with the design on the site, and the implementation of how they’re cleaning these things out, and it’s polluting our waters," Brown said.

Brown said she told Smiley the disturbances and buffer violations were in "clear violation" of the state’s Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act and the federal Clean Water Act. She also said the site should require Best Management Practices (BMPs) to ensure the work being done is not harming the environment around it.

"The county didn’t put in any kind of erosion controls at all. They threw down some grass seed during the middle of a drought," Brown said.

Smiley said he and Dale Dudley, county engineer, had been out to the site a number of times.

"That is a ditch that was dug back probably 30 or 40 years ago, and we were mandated to keep that ditch cleaned out," Dudley said. "Occasionally, we’ll have to go out there and get the vegetation out of the banks, so when water flows it won’t back up and flood. We do seed that as we go. The seed generally establishes within a week and does a pretty good job."

Smiley and Dudley both said the ditch had recently been cleaned out when the complaints about the water’s status were first made.

"We have to have that main road through there so we can go next to the bank and clean it out," Dudley explained. "The road is sloped away from the bank so (water) runs away from the ditch, down the backside of that road; hopefully so that it filters out before it runs down there. It’s just muddy, but we can’t see where it’s causing any harm."

Brown disagreed.

She said without buffer controls, when heavy rains fill the tributary with water, it could cause flooding for downstream properties and residences.

"It’s just going to keep creating the problem and it’s significantly hurting the river," she said.

But Smiley said the county is doing things "by the book."

"If we’re hurting anything downstream, then we would stop," he said.

OCRK asked that Bryan County immediately issue a stop work order, and sent in a third complaint to the county and EPD on Aug. 24.

The EPD agreed with the county that the tributary has "no wrested vegetation and therefore no buffer requirements," according to the EPD Complaint Tracking Record report, sent to OCRK on Aug. 28. That report said the county's measures will sufficiently filter and capture the sediment before it re-enters the tributary.

"The law is really clear that nobody is supposed to allow pollution to leave their property. When it rains and water goes pulsing through that stream, it’s going to be picking up dirt. That’s completely bare soil that’s washing into the stream – in turn washing into the Ogeechee River – carrying with it pollution and nutrients," Brown said, noting dirt is the number one pollutant of Georgia waters.

But Smiley and Dudley estimated the grass would be growing within the week, and didn’t expect any rain damage to occur.

"We have to go in there and get the vegetation out of that ditch; it’s going to be pretty muddy while we’re doing it. It was just recently cleaned out, which would create the muddiness. The water will settle off, it’s not running like a normal stream," Dudley said.

"We would not, as a county, be doing anything to harm the waters. The last thing we want to do is harm the environment," Smiley added.

The OCRK feels the solution is consistency and fairness within the applications of the law.

"Because someone in the county was concerned – that’s the big take home message," Brown said.

"People need to continue to get involved, because we can continue to expect things like this to happen and for government to turn its head the other way."

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