EPA fines broadcaster for filling wetlands

A broadcasting company with a facility near Ninilchik has been fined $30,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally filling wetlands with gravel and dredged material.

The EPA issued the fine to Aurora Communications International Inc., a Belmont, Calif.-based nonprofit that broadcasts Christian radio programs to Russia, China and Japan, in February. The company illegally filled approximately half an acre of wetlands with dredged material or fill between March and July 2012, according to the citation.

The organization was constructing a gravel road and a foundation pad for a shortwave radio antenna tower when the filling occurred, according to the EPA. The filling discharged gravel, concrete and soil, among other materials, into the wetlands.

The Clean Water Act requires that developers obtain a permit before discharging dredged or fill material into wetlands. Illegally filling wetlands can result in the pollution of local waters. A riparian area runs through the center of Aurora Communications International’s property as well, running into Cook Inlet.

Aurora Communications International owns a 150-acre parcel of land to the north of Ninilchik along the Sterling Highway, bordering the Cook Inlet. The parcel it owns is spotted with wetlands drainage and kettles, which are tributaries to Cook Inlet, according to the EPA.

The nonprofit was liable for every day the fill remained in the wetlands, totaling approximately $177,500. Based on the nonprofit’s situation and ability to pay, the penalty was later reduced to $30,000, which was paid, according to EPA records.

This is not the first time Aurora Communications International has been fined by the EPA. In 2004, the organization was fined $17,000 for the same violation: filling wetlands without a permit. The first time, which occurred twice — once in 1998 and again between 2001 and 2002 — the company filled several acres of wetlands for roads and radio antenna pads at the same site, according to the EPA.

The EPA issued a citation in 1999, requiring the organization to clean out the dredged material and prevent future discharge. The company did not comply with the 1999 order or a subsequent order issued in 2002.

As well as being required to remove some of the pads and gravel, re-grade the land and fill certain ditches, the organization was required to establish a 50-acre conservation easement on the land.

The president and CEO, Alexander Kozned, has since left the organization. His successor, Tom King, declined to comment on the citation.

At present, the EPA does not plan to seek any further action against the company, according to Mark MacIntyre, the senior communications officer for Region 10 of the EPA.

“At this point, they have paid the most recent penalty and are planning to undertake the required wetland restoration and mitigation work at the site,” MacIntyre said in a statement. “We’re not aware of the need for any additional enforcement action with this company, but will continue to monitor compliance with the agreed-to settlement.”

Darrel Williams, the Resource & Environment Department Director for the Ninilchik Traditional Council, said the routine of violating environmental standards and paying fines is fairly standard. Many companies do cost analyses and find that it is simply cheaper to pay the fine, he said.

“Over the years, what we’ve found, is that what companies do is cost analyses and have acceptable rates of fines that they will pay,” Williams said. “We think the levels need to change of what is acceptable and what is regulatory requirements.”

For unincorporated communities, it can be frustrating because they have little say over the regulation on companies that operate in their areas. The upcoming decision on the Alaska Land Trust case, which will decided if tribes have the right to place lands into the state trust, giving them more sovereignty, will likely have an effect on how tribes handle enforcement cases, Williams said.

“It’s a lot easier to do stuff in an unincorporated community because we don’t have the voice to address it,” Williams said.

 

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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