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Essex County solar farm sediment runoff is ‘an enforcement case’

ESSEX COUNTY, Va. -- The tons of muddy runoff escaping into the watershed below the new Essex County Solar Power Center is “an active enforcement case that will result in financial penalties,” said a spokesperson with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Last night we showed you part of Sunday’s sediment runoffs from the 200-acre project by Coronal Energy of California just off Tidewater Trail and Muddy Gut Road. That 20-megawatt solar field will feed Dominion Energy’s grid.

The runoffs have been “severe,” said Wyn Davis, Essex County Building Official and Environmental Compliance Officer. “There’s not a soul in the county happy about this.”

The problem is clear. What went wrong isn’t.

The Department of Environmental Quality, which approved the design plan, will be investigating, said DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn.

“Our regional office is monitoring the situation closely,” she said in a statement. (See full statement below.)

DEQ has issued multiple notices of violations in August and September, she said, and more are expected for more recent discharges into wetlands and streams.

The key contractor on the Coronal Energy project, McCarthy Building Companies, is doing all it can to fix the situation, Davis said.

He believes an issue was bulldozing retention ponds in preparation to finishing the project - before the planted native vegetation had grown.

An updated statement from Coronal Energy Friday (see full statement below) said unexpected weather conditions prevented the vegetation from growing in sloped areas.

Sediment control and cleanup measures are in full gear, the statement said.

The runoff has impacted Muddy Gut Creek, which feeds into the nearby Rappahannock - all protected by the Chesapeake Bay Act.

Lifelong nearby resident Gary McCauley, 63, said he’s never seen anything like it.

“Never,” he said. “Not in my whole lifetime. Even after a hurricane.”

The sediment runoff will have to be cleaned up, said Davis with Essex County. The project has a $396,000 sediment control bond, he added.

More developments are expected in this case, including heavy rain forecast for this weekend.

Friday’s statement from DEQ:

"This is an active enforcement case that will result in financial penalties. Our regional office is monitoring the situation closely. DEQ has issued multiple notices of violations (NOVs) from both the stormwater construction program and Virginia Water Protection permit program for discharges into wetlands and streams in August and September 2017. There is a proposed consent order out for public comment that includes $9100 in civil charges to resolve noncompliance with the construction general permit. Another NOV is expected to be issued next week for erosion and sedimentation impacts that occurred in January caused by the removal of sediment traps for final grading."

Joint statement from Coronal Energy and McCarthy Building Companies:

"As leading renewable energy companies, Coronal Energy and McCarthy Building Companies are committed to delivering projects in an environmentally responsible way which entails months of planning and coordination with county and state agencies.

As with all of our solar projects, a Sediment and Erosion Control Plan and a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan were prepared by a 3rd party engineer located in the state of Virginia. The plans were then submitted and approved by the state of Virginia prior to the start of construction.  The Stormwater Pollution Prevention plan was verified in place by a state certified 3rd party stormwater consultant with expertise in the local geography. This same consultant conducted site inspections as required by the State.

Best Management Practices (BMPs) were installed on the project as a means of dealing with sediment control. BMPs involving temporary sediment containment measures included: sediment traps, silt fence, diversion ditches, check dams and temporary basins to manage sediment runoff at the site. Temporary sediment control measures were put into place throughout the construction of the project, but were compromised due to the ground becoming over-saturated and heavier than normal rainfall.  

At the start of construction, meetings were held with the county inspector regarding implementation of the plan and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) began regular inspections. Over the term of the project’s construction, DEQ provided feedback and the project team worked to meet their requests.  Upon substantial completion of the project, steps were taken to stabilize the soil as called out in the plans; however, due to high volumes of rain and snow these efforts were expanded upon and additional recommendations will be provided following an inspection by another 3rd party engineer who specializes in sediment control. This inspection will occur the week of 2/12. 

Typically, the most effective sediment control mechanism is re-generation of native vegetation. Although the site was seeded with native vegetation, which has been growing in the flat areas of the site where the trackers are located, conditions prevented it from growing in the sloped areas where over-saturation, cold weather and heavier than normal rainfall is having an impact.  

​​We will re-seed again, but warmer weather is required for full germination, therefore the temporary sediment control measures are being expanded and clean-up efforts are in full-gear to help manage sediment run-off at the site. And, additional efforts will be implemented based upon the recommendations that are received following the inspection by the engineer next week. 

​​Additional temporary measures are continuing to be installed and maintained on an on-going basis, and are happening in advance of next week’s site evaluation."