A lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Brunswick accuses Sea Island Acquisition of violating the conditions of its permit under the Clean Water Act to fill in nearly half an acre of wetlands adjoining St. Simons Island, by The Inn at Sea Island.
According to the complaint filed by the Glynn Environmental Coalition and Center for a Sustainable Coast, Sea Island received authorization from the Army Corps of Engineers in February 2013 to fill in those 0.49 acres in order to build an office building and neighboring parking lot. Such wetland-filling is allowable under the Clean Water Act if it has minimal environmental impact in relation to its perceived economic impact.
The permit was active for two years under Nationwide Permit No. 39, the portion of the law that governs these actions. The half-acre was filled between February and March 2013. The complaint states a May 2017 memo showed Sea Island’s authorization extended to March 2017, with an additional year to finish.
According to the complaint, “Upon information and belief, Sea Island has failed to build a commercial structure, as required under NWP 39, and has no plans to construct a commercial structure on the subject wetland. Instead, Sea Island has merely grassed over, or in other words, landscaped over the subject wetland.”
The complaint later continues, “Since Sea Island’s authorization to fill the subject wetland under NWP 39 expired, the continued fill of the subject wetland constitutes an ongoing violation of Section 301 of the Clean Water Act … as the fill is not permitted under either Section 401 or Section 404 of the act.”
Following that, GEC and CSC allege Sea Island is also in violation of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, as the state Environmental Protection Division issues permits to operate under that section, and compliance with Section 401 is dependent on compliance with NWP 39.
The environmental advocacy groups allege if Sea Island wanted to just fill in and landscape the wetland in the manner stated, it would have been a lengthier and more expensive process that would’ve involved individual permitting — instead of using a nationwide permit — and that confronted with the extra perceived time, effort and money, Sea Island “intentionally misled the Corps in seeking NWP 39, as Sea Island never intended to construct a commercial structure….”
The groups further allege that filling the wetland in this manner “destroyed a natural barrier that protects Dunbar Creek,” and that the Corps knew Sea Island submitted erroneous information but chose to allow for the filling of the wetland anyway.
The GEC and CSC are asking the court to declare Sea Island’s NWP 39 authorization void, that the company illegally discharged fill into the wetlands and continues to do so, issue an order for Sea Island to restore the wetland, issue an order requiring Sea Island to go through the individual permitting process if it wants to fill the wetland again, institute a civil penalty of $37,500 for every day included in each violation of the Clean Water Act, and award expenses and attorney’s fees.
Representing GEC and CSC is Righton Lewis, who works out of the Atlanta office for law firm Butler Snow.
In a statement sent when GEC and CSC first threatened to sue Sea Island, GEC Executive Director Rachael Thompson said, “There appears to be evidence that Sea Island misled the Corps of Engineers in their application to fill freshwater wetlands. No commercial structure was built and Sea Island placed ‘permanent sodding’ in the wetlands. Sodding wetlands is a prohibited activity under the nationwide permit and Sea Island has not taken any steps to remedy the violation.”
Center for a Sustainable Coast Executive Director David Kyler stated that among the objectives of this action is to discourage similar developers from pursuing a similar path on future projects.
Steve Willis, president of the CSC board, said in a statement, “Developers should not be allowed to circumvent environmental safeguards and the permitting process. The citizens of coastal Georgia are frustrated by the frequent negligence of regulatory agencies and their bias favoring developers, resulting in repeated violations of law.”
As for Sea Island, president and CEO Scott Steilen said in a statement Thursday that they’re confident in their actions.
“Sea Island takes very seriously our commitment to being a good corporate citizen,” Steilen said. “This commitment extends to all aspects of this community where our team members live, work and raise their families. I am personally very proud of our charitable work, community involvement and environmental stewardship. Likewise, I am grateful to the members of this community who personally reach out to my team to thank them for their contributions.
“I was disappointed to hear about this lawsuit, because I believe it wrongly portrays Sea Island. We are confident in our compliance with the permit and our case under the law and the facts. We believe it is appropriate for us to provide our responses in court, where we look forward to the court addressing these issues.”