Home builders fined for polluting

Nevada will claim part of a big settlement between the federal government and four major home builders that government officials say failed to control water runoff from construction sites.

Centex Corp. of Dallas, KB Home of Los Angeles, Pulte Homes of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and M.D.C. Holdings of Denver will pay $4.3 million in fines for lax runoff controls in Nevada and 33 other states, plus the District of Columbia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Nevada’s share of the settlement amounts to $182,000. The money goes to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which will likely apply the proceeds to environmental restoration, department spokesman Dante Pistone said.

Agency officials are "really pleased with the news that we’ll be receiving additional funds for environmental protection," Pistone said.

Nevada ranked among the top five states in the number of job sites falling under the EPA’s investigation and settlement. The Silver State contains 158 of the 2,202 construction projects included in the agency’s review. Only California, Florida, Texas and Arizona have more sites involved in the settlement.

With 58 sites, M.D.C.’s Richmond American unit owns the most Nevada parcels the EPA cited in its action.

Wednesday’s settlements are part of a nationwide crackdown by the EPA to find storm water violations at construction sites. The Clean Water Act requires builders that disturb land to obtain permits and minimize runoff from rain. The companies named in the settlements allegedly failed to obtain permits and to prevent silt and debris-laden runoff from leaving construction sites from 2001 to 2004.

The builders wouldn’t comment on their local water-control practices, pointing instead to a joint statement they issued Wednesday.

"As leaders in the home-building industry, we share the government’s goal of protecting and preserving clean waterways," the statement said.

Local construction consultant Neil Opfer, an associate professor in the construction engineering and management program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the EPA’s action signaled heightened agency interest in enforcing storm-water rules.

"I would say (runoff control) is a larger problem than just these four builders," Opfer said. "One of the problems you run into is there are an awful lot of construction sites in Nevada, and I don’t know how many inspectors they have to cover all these sites. You wonder whether this is the kind of situation where they say, ‘OK, we’re going to go after the biggest builders, and that’s going to get everybody’s attention and ensure compliance.’"

The EPA’s investigation ensnared so many sites because the agency hasn’t traditionally cracked down substantially on runoff problems, Opfer said. That relative lack of enforcement bred unfamiliarity with runoff regulations, and left builders to concentrate on better-known issues such as building codes, zoning, land use and construction safety.

"This is partly a case where contractors might not be conversant with storm requirements," Opfer said.

And sometimes, builders simply forget to maintain runoff preventives, failing, for example, to check up on silt fences and straw bales that keep sediment out of storm drains.

Meeting federal runoff standards in Nevada has its own set of challenges, too, Opfer said.

It’s easy enough to install routine anti-runoff measures such as silt fences and hay bales. But it’s tougher to rein in other sediment and runoff sources, such as trucks that track mud onto streets. Also, Las Vegas fields occasional heavy storms producing an inch or more of rain in 45 minutes, generating flash floods that can overwhelm even the most conscientious runoff-control efforts. And as local development reaches the city’s edges and creeps up hillsides, builders must grapple with drainage control on uneven or sloped sites.

Centex Corp. agreed to pay the largest fine, at $1.485 million. KB Home was penalized $1.185 million. Pulte Homes, along with a $877,000 fine, will complete a $608,000 project to reduce the amount of sediment entering a northern California watershed. Federal prosecutors levied a $795,000 on Richmond American Homes.

The National Association of Home Builders said the settlements with some of its larger members were a positive step that will be used as a model for other home builders.

"Clear rules — and understanding how to follow them — enable builders to help protect the environment while keeping housing affordable," association spokeswoman Donna Reichle said.

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said in addition to silt fences and straw bales, local builders should also be creating basins to collect storm water and sweeping streets to pick up dirt. Nationally, such measures would keep 1.2 billion pounds of sediment out of waterways, where the sludge clouds water, kills aquatic wildlife and vegetation, and clogs treatment filters that strain drinking water.

Opfer said he believes local builders may take more-dramatic steps to eliminate runoff, perhaps even covering construction sites with temporary paving to prevent sediment runoff altogether.

"This is kind of a wake-up call to the construction industry that they’ve got to be more careful in terms of storm water runoff and cleanliness on construction sites," Opfer said.

This is the largest construction-related case the EPA has settled.

In February, the agency fined Home Depot $1.3 million to resolve alleged violations at 30 construction sites for its big box stores in 28 states. But the largest settlement to date was with Wal-Mart, which in May 2004 agreed to pay $3.1 million for violations at construction sites across the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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