EPA: Clean Water Act enforcement could impact railroad project


After accusations from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) that Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR) violated the Clean Water Act, one official recently weighed in on the significance of Clean Water Act violations.

Environmental Protection Agency cases frequently involve Clean Water Act violations, Public Affairs Specialist Bill Dunbar said. The EPA is responsible for keeping water sources safe for the sake of wildlife and human consumption.

“There’s nothing more important to human existence than clean water,” Dunbar said. “The water resources that we own collectively are invaluable. They’re the source of our drinking water, the source of irrigation, the source of fish and wildlife that we enjoy and rely on. Water is life, and humans have an enormous impact on our resources. Every time we build a parking lot or a home, it has an impact on water of some sort.”

In a letter on Dec. 18, 2023, USACE Col. Kathryn Sanborn accused PVJR of violating section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Section 404 requires permitting before discharging dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, according to the EPA’s website.

The USACE investigation reported the discharge of fill material into 200 linear feet of tributaries in the Chelatchie Creek and adjacent wetland, Sanborn stated in the letter.

PVJR’s owner Eric Temple disputed the damage accusations  in a letter to Clark County officials on Oct. 17, 2023, and again in a letter to the editor submitted to The Reflector on Jan. 2, 2024.

Though Dunbar could not comment on the EPA’s current involvement in PVJR’s construction in Chelatchie, he provided information regarding the USACE’s Clean Water Act violation accusations.

Clean Water Act violations are common and one of the EPA’s greatest concerns in the Pacific Northwest, Dunbar said.

“We step in a lot. We have a lot of Clean Water Act horror cases, most often out of ignorance of the [permitting] requirements,” Dunbar said.

The EPA and USACE share Section 404 enforcement authority. The agencies have reserved their criminal enforcement authority for only the worst Section 404 violations, according to the EPA’s website.

The EPA has the authority to issue administrative compliance orders requiring a violator to stop any ongoing illegal discharge activity and order removal of illegal discharge and otherwise restore the site. The agency can also assess administrative civil penalties of up to $16,000 per day for violations, with a maximum cap of $187,500 in any single enforcement action, according to the EPA’s website.

The EPA and USACE also have the authority to take civil judicial enforcement actions, seeking restoration and other types of injunctive relief, as well as civil penalties. The agencies also have the authority to bring criminal judicial enforcement actions for knowingly or negligently violating Section 404, according to the EPA’s website.

The EPA and USACE take Clean Water Act violations seriously, Dunbar said. Disrupting tributaries and creeks can impact wetlands, which are critical to our environment.

“Wetlands are vanishing,” Dunbar said. “Wetlands play a vital role in protecting water quality … They filter pollutants out.”

Dunbar said that investigations into Clean Water Act violations take time, with some investigations lasting up to two years.

“The EPA cares. It’s a core part of our mission to protect human health and the environment. Waters of the U.S. and people’s health are inextricably intertwined,” Dunbar said.