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Home builders hit with fines 

Construction of at least two Charlotte subdivisions violated Clean Water Act

Four top U.S. home builders have agreed to pay millions in fines for alleged Clean Water Act violations at construction sites across the country, including the sites of two subdivisions in Charlotte.

Centex, KB Home and Pulte Homes have agreed to pay $3.5 million for alleged violations of storm water run-off regulations in 34 states and the District of Columbia, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice announced last week. A fourth builder cited in the inquiry, Richmond American Homes, has no affected sites in the Charlotte region.

The two local subdivisions specifically cited for alleged violations are Centex's Buckleigh in northeast Charlotte and Pulte's Oak Ridge in south Charlotte. The EPA said both had the proper permits but did not have appropriate storm water controls in place.

Roxanne Smith, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency found Clean Water Act violations at more than 100 sites. After that, she wrote in an e-mail, "EPA did not believe that it would be an efficient use of resources to conduct additional inspections at these hundreds of additional sites."

In return for paying fines and implementing storm water control programs, federal authorities won't pursue additional penalties at more than 2,400 sites include in the agreements. Nearly three dozen sites in Cabarrus, Gaston, Mecklenburg and Union counties were named among sites covered by the agreements. In a news release, the EPA said its inquiry found a "common pattern" of violations, such as not obtaining required environmental permits until construction had begun (or not at all) or failing to prevent or minimize discharge of pollutants such as silt and debris.

The Clean Water Act requires that construction sites use measures such as silt fences and sediment basins to prevent pollutants from getting into storm water and nearby waterways. Polluted runoff can damage drinking water quality and harm or kill wildlife.

Runoff also causes sedimentation, a process in which sediment can build up in waterways and damage ecosystems, said John Wear, an associate professor at Catawba College and director of its Center for the Environment. "Sedimentation is actually one of the biggest pollution problems in the state of North Carolina," Wear said.

As part of the agreements, Centex will pay about $1.49 million; KB Home will pay about $1.19 million; Pulte will pay $877,000; and Richmond American will pay $795,000. Pulte also agreed to complete a $608,000 environmentally friendly project in northern California. The new pollution controls could keep 1.2 billion pounds of sediment from polluting waterways, the EPA said.

The home builders released a joint statement that they were "pleased" to reach resolution: "As leaders in the home building industry, we share the government's goal in protecting and preserving clean waterways."

A Pulte Homes spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the company in June 2006 began a program aimed at improving compliance with storm water regulations. More than 40 people in the company's Charlotte division are trained in storm water management, according to the e-mail, including its entire construction team as well as personnel in land development and operations. The Charlotte division also has third-party quarterly inspections.

Elizabeth Outzs, executive director of Environment North Carolina, an advocacy group, said the settlement amount seemed "small."

By comparison, she said, N.C. authorities in 2007 fined developers a little more than $1 million for 60 violations of sedimentation laws. "And that's just for one state," Outzs said. "I think this settlement just points to the fact that we need to be doing more to make sure that when developers build, they don't destroy our waterways in the process."

Environment N.C. has been pushing for more environmental inspectors. In 2007, only 32 inspectors were available to scrutinize 8,000 construction sites.

Seven states that joined the complaints against the builders -- Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee and Utah -- will receive a portion of the penalties.

According to the EPA, the four builders had more than 124,000 home closings in 2006 and are among the top 10 home builders in terms of home closings and revenues.

The agreements are subject to a 30-day public comment period and federal court approval, after which the companies will have 30 days to pay the penalties.

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