Officials for a federal agency deny accusations of incompetence by a Ventura County environmental organization regarding their role to stop the illegal fill of Arroyo Las Posas.
The founder and attorney for the Ventura Coastkeeper/Wishtoyo Foundation claimed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of regulating the waterways, did nothing to stop the landowners from dumping fill in the creek and changing the course of the waterway. The accusations were published in a recent press release from the organization and in an article printed in the Ventura County Star.
“I think that is a mischaracterization,” said Antal Szijj, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, regarding their role in stopping illegal fills. “We initiated the Muranaka Farms and Tom Staben properties’ investigation and passed it to the Environmental Protection Agency. They have more muscle when it comes to doing enforcement.”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager John Markham and Szijj originally determined the claims of violations by Staben and Muranaka Farms were accurate. The landowners had been illegally dumping dirt, debris and rock in Arroyo Las Posas since 2005. The case was then passed along to the EPA, who had more resources to resolve the problem.
The EPA then administrated enforcement in November 2007 upon Muranaka and Staben.
The enforcement came shortly after the Mati Waiya, founder of Ventura Coastkeeper, testified against several other landowners who had been dumping in the creek.
Waiya had originally filed a lawsuit against landowners Ching San Tsai and Chin Tsu Tsai of Santa Barbara, who sold it in 2005 to Nicolas Teng, also of Santa Barbara, and Ching Chou Lin and Chen Chen Yi of Shanghai in July 2007. The landowners had been dumping fill material containing construction waste including concrete, sheetrock, tiles, broken countertops and caulk tubes.
Waiya settled the enforcement action against the landowners last week but claimed the foundation jumpstarted the local, state and federal agencies to stop other landowners from illegally filling the creek.
“The enforcement didn’t happen until we started putting pressure on the agencies,” Waiya said.
But Markham said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a limited workforce for Ventura County with only one and a half full-time employees that can follow up on an investigation.
“First and foremost the Corps is interested and involved in discovering and investigating alleged violations,” Markham said.
Because of their limited workforce, Markham said the agency’s enforcement is discretionary and simply can’t act on every report of a violation.
However, Waiya and his attorney Daniel Cooper, of Lawyers for Clean Water, said the only agency to act against the landowners was the EPA and only because Waiya testified against the other landowners.
But Mary Butterwick, life scientist for the Cleanwater Compliance office for the EPA, said if it wasn’t for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they would not have known about the Muranaka Farms and Staben.
“The Corps conducted the initial site inspections,” Butterwick said.
Because of due process of government agencies, which can take several years, Butterwick said enforcement upon Muranaka and Staben just happened to come at the same time Waiya testified against the other creek polluters.
Waiya and Cooper also claimed that neither federal, state nor local agencies had done anything to stop the illegal fill of Arroyo Las Posas.
Jeff Pratt, the director for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, said his agency was never informed about the illegal dumping by Tsai, Lin and Teng. The district also investigates any alleged illegal dumping accusations.
“I have never gotten a call about anybody dumping illegally,” Pratt said. “Mati has my phone number. That is really unfair.”
Markham, Szijj and Pratt all said they investigate alleged violations reported to them and appreciate any work performed by the public to stop illegal dumping.