JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – State environmental regulators have issued a stern warning to contractors accused of illegally pumping wastewater into wetlands and a nearby Jacksonville waterway.
Investigators with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have found five possible violations at a dig site behind homes in Jacksonville’s Grove Park neighborhood.
The report, obtained by News4Jax, comes after weeks of investigation at the state and local level. A separate investigation is underway with Jacksonville’s environmental quality division inspectors.
Neighbors in the residential area have been complaining after seeing increased truck traffic and dirt on nearby roads as the project behind several homes on Grove Park Boulevard continued.
Developers working on a project for a Wawa gas station miles away on Baymeadows Road needed fresh dirt and a place to dump the soil from the build site. In April they bought land behind several homes on Grove Park Boulevard for $115,000, knocked down the trees and started swapping soil. In addition to the leakage, neighbors have complained about debris on the road, increased truck traffic in front of homes, and two homeowners have told News4Jax their homes are sinking because of the project.
Over the past few weeks, state and city inspectors have been out to investigate almost daily. Drone video from neighbor and IT specialist Michael Best might be the best evidence in the case.
On Friday, July 16, he recorded aerial video showing a trail of turbid (cloudy) water several hundred yards long in Pottsburg Creek, which feeds into the St. Johns River.
“I got a tip that they were releasing turbid water into the river so I ran over here and got a drone and got the shot that started all this,” Best told News4Jax.
He posted the footage on a neighborhood Facebook page. It was then sent to the News4Jax I-TEAM.
Best’s video and pictures are cited several times in a July 22 report and warning letter from FDEP. In it, investigators noted a pump and hose sent cloudy water into the nearby wetlands and Pottsburg Creek.
“What they’re doing to the neighborhood, everybody’s upset,” he said, referring to the contractors.
“We’re very thankful to have active neighbors and hope this gets resolved very soon,” said Kevin Carrico, the Jacksonville City Council member who represents the area.
Carrico said he’s been trying to get answers for more than a month and that FDEP’s report is concerning.
In the inspection report, regulators noted they found violations with the unpermitted release of the turbid water into the creek. They discovered silt fences that didn’t protect the wetlands and learned that for four months, the contractors were doing construction without a valid environmental permit.
FDEP worked with city of Jacksonville inspectors who took water samples in the area. It wrote:
“During a site visit by COJ on Wednesday, July 21, 2021 for the collection of water samples for turbidity analysis. Three water samples were collected, one was collected just outside the perimeter BMPs (Discharge Point), a background sample was taken further into the CE towards Pottsburg Creek and the third sample was taken on‐ ERP Site No. 407243 Page 3 of 8 site. COJ provided split samples with the Department as well as Dirt on Demand. The samples for the Department were scanned using a Hatch 2100 Q Turbidimeter. The background sample had a turbidity reading of 28 NTU and the Discharge Point and on‐site samples each had turbidity readings of greater than 1,000 NTU.”
The report did not note if the discharge was believed to be toxic.
State regulators sent a warning letter to Timothy Stevens of Baymit II LLC, the company that bought the land, Daniel Bergin, the contractor with Tampa-based Dirt on Demand, and Roy Shaw, with Jacksonville-based Shaw’s Land Clearing.
In the warning letter, FDEP’s district director Gregory Strong said it was making contact with the possible violators to discuss the case and possible repercussions.
“Violations of Florida Statutes or administrative rules may result in liability for damages and restoration, and the judicial imposition of civil penalties,” he wrote. “The Department is interested in receiving any facts that you may have which might assist in determining whether any violations have occurred. You may bring anyone with you to the meeting that you feel could help resolve this matter.”
In a letter to FDEP, in response to the allegations, Bergin said “NO employee or subcontractor of Dirt On Demand LLC started the pump and moved the discharge hose to outfall into the creek. This appears to be the work of an unaffiliated and unauthorized person(s).”
When reached by phone, Bergin reiterated what he wrote in the letter. He said he hoped to wrap up the project within the week and get the property closed down.
Neighbors said they’re still watching the site closely, noting that over the weekend an excavator got stuck in a mud pit and had to be removed by a tow truck.
St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman told News4Jax she was concerned about what was in the discharged water and was also worried that the discharge would change the depth of the water, making it less navigable and dangerous for boaters.
Carrico scheduled a community meeting a Holiday Hill Baptist Church Monday night, inviting neighbors, investigators, and the contractors. He said the contractors declined his request and that FDEP could not make a statement because the case was still open.
“I don’t want to see this happen again,” Carrico said. “Not in my community and not in anyone’s community.”