The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced a $1 million civil penalty against Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., one of the nation’s largest home building firms, for widespread violations of clean water laws designed to stop storm water runoff pollution. You can read EPA’s statement and fact sheet about the violations by clicking here and here.
My reaction: It's good that EPA is making an example of the big guys of the real-estate industry. But the government should not stop with this case. There are a lot more developers out there who also deserve scrutiny, and this incident raises the possibility that storm water law violations are widespread.
Hovnanian reached a settlement agreement with EPA that will require its projects to take several steps to reduce storm water pollution. If the company follows these requirements, the amount of sediment pollution discharged into the Chesapeake Bay watershed will drop by almost 82 million pounds a year, according to EPA.
“Sediment can kill fish directly, destroy spawning beds, suffocate fish eggs and bottom dwelling organisms, and block sunlight resulting in reduced growth of beneficial aquatic grasses,” EPA says in a written statement about the case. “In addition, sediment can impact the treatment of drinking water, resulting in higher treatment costs.”
The settlement agreement covers alleged storm water violations at 591 construction sites nationally, including 79 in Maryland, 70 in Virginia, 43 in Pennsylvania, 1 in DC, 10 in West Virginia.
The alleged violations include failure to obtain permits until after construction had begun, or failing to obtain them at all, according to EPA. At sites with permits, violations included failure to prevent or minimize the discharge of pollutants such as silt and debris in storm water runoff.
“Restoring and preserving the Chesapeake Bay is one of EPA’s top priorities, and preventing polluted storm water from entering the bay watershed is vital to keeping it healthy,” said Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.
According to Hovnanian’s website, the company took in $1.6 billion in revenues in fiscal 2009.
Clearly, the $1 million in fines in this case was not commensurate with the harm caused by all the pollution -- 82 million pounds per year.
To prevent developers from thinking that such penalties are just part of the cost of doing business, Maryland and other states should start also taking away the permits of developers and builders who don't follow storm water pollution control laws. That would send an even stronger message, and stop future polluters.