Solar developer fined $1.14M for wetlands damage in Williamsburg


Managing Editor

Published: 02-01-2021 8:13 PM

WILLIAMSBURG — A Pennsylvania-based solar array developer has agreed to pay approximately $1.14 million to settle allegations that it violated federal stormwater requirements, damaging protected wetlands, and polluted the West Branch of the Mill River in Williamsburg, state Attorney General Maura Healey announced Monday.

The consent decree, filed in U.S. District Court, settles an April 2020 lawsuit filed by the Healey’s office alleging that Dynamic Energy Solutions LLC disregarded “fundamental pollution control requirements” for construction sites under federal and state law when it constructed an 18.5-acre solar array on a steep hillside above the West Branch Mill River, according to the AG’s office.

“Developers must abide by our important state and federal laws designed to protect precious natural resources like wetlands that prevent flooding and storm damage, and support wildlife,” Healey said in a statement. “This resolution requires the company to restore the resources it damaged and to fund land acquisitions that will improve the water quality of the West Branch Mill River.”

The complaint filed last year alleges Dynamic caused stormwater filled with sediment to flow in extreme amounts off the array site, eroding the hillside, scouring out perennial and intermittent streams, uprooting trees, destroying stream beds, filling in wetlands with sediment, and causing the river to become brown, in violation of federal and state laws protecting water and wetlands resources.

Healey’s office alleges that Dynamic’s failure to comply with stormwater pollution control requirements altered about 97,000 square feet of protected wetlands and more than 41,000 feet of riverfront area, covering the bottom of the West Branch Mill River with the equivalent of more than an acre of sediment.

A representative from Dynamic Energy said the company was glad to have reached a resolution in cooperation with the commonwealth.

“We look forward to completing restoration work at the site, and to placing land into conservation to help protect Massachusetts’ natural resources,” Tony Orr, general counsel for the company, wrote in a email to the Gazette.

The alleged violations occurred during the company’s 2018 construction of a 4-megawatt, 17,000-panel solar energy project at a former sand and gravel pit at 103 Briar Hill Road. The 370-acre property spans both Williamsburg and Goshen.

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In a 2019 newsletter to the community, and following a visit to the site, Williamsburg’s Conservation Commission wrote that “a serious ecological accident” had occurred in which the developer “literally lost control of the ground, and some tons of sediment escaped from the site, smothered about two acres of beautifully healthy wetlands, and ran into Nichols Brook and the West Branch Mill River. This is the worst pollution event the current Conservation Commission has ever seen.”

The attorney general’s complaint alleges that Dynamic’s actions destroyed wildlife habitat and vegetation and changed the flow of the tributaries feeding the West Branch Mill River, a valuable cold-water fishery that is important to the Northern spring salamander and a dragonfly species known as the ocellated darner.

Dynamic also allegedly failed to comply with an enforcement order issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection requiring stabilization of the site, stormwater controls, and restoration of the damaged resources. MassDEP’s Western Regional Office investigated the case and referred it to the Healey’s office for further enforcement.

“The impacts to the wetlands and wildlife habitat areas were not only egregious, they were entirely avoidable,” said Michael Gorski, director of Mass DEP’s Western Regional Office in Springfield, in a statement Monday. “Solar energy is an important part of the state’s long-term energy strategy, however, projects must be sited, designed and constructed in a thoughtful manner to ensure that they do not result in the degradation of our vital natural resources.”

Under the terms of the consent decree, Dynamic must comply with state and federal laws to protect water quality and natural resources at the solar array, restore impacted resources at an estimated cost of $530,000, and place a parcel of 24 acres near the West Branch Mill River into conservation at an estimated cost of $210,000. The company must also pay $215,000 to fund the acquisition of land by a trust to benefit water quality in the Mill River, pay a penalty of $100,000 to the commonwealth’s general fund, and pay $80,000 to the attorney general’s office for costs, including attorney fees.

Stormwater pollution is regulated under a variety of federal Clean Water Act permits and the consent decree involving Dynamic Energy Solutions is a civil enforcement initiative out of the AG’s Environmental Protection Division that focuses on combating pollution by enforcing the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and the federal Clean Air Act in Massachusetts, along with applicable state environmental laws. The AG’s Office reports that it has successfully resolved 10 cases under this initiative since the program’s inception in 2019, which have recovered more than $1 million for local environmental improvement projects and civil penalties.

The case was handled by Special Assistant Attorney General Nora Chorover and Attorney Emily Mitchell of Attorney General Healey’s Environmental Protection Division, with the assistance of Senior Regional Counsel Heather Parent, and technical staff members David Cameron and David Foulis of MassDEP’s Western Regional Office in Springfield.