Four solar projects are fined for alleged Clean Water Act violations

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency reached settlement agreements with four separate solar farm owners in three states to resolve alleged Clean Water Act violations.

The alleged violations involved construction permit violations and stormwater mismanagement at large-scale solar generating facilities: a site near LaFayette, Alabama, owned by AL Solar A LLC; a site near American Falls, Idaho, owned by American Falls Solar LLC; a site in Perry County, Illinois, owned by Prairie State Solar LLC; and a site in White County, Illinois, owned by Big River Solar LLC. 

The states of Alabama and Illinois joined in the Alabama and Illinois settlements.

The four solar farm owners used a common construction contractor for the development of their solar farms, according to the settlement. Together, the four settlements secured a total of $1.34 million in civil penalties and are expected to ensure that remaining construction will take place in compliance with Clean Water Act stormwater permits. 

A search by Renewable Energy World of the D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments web site found details about the Illinois projects, and the consent decrees were distributed to that company’s general counsel. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The web site of Miami-based Origis Energy includes a project in Lafayette, Alabama, referred to as AL Solar A. The consent decree was signed by the chief legal officer for Montreal-based Boralex whose web site also includes a solar project in Lafayette. Neither company responded immediately for a request for comment.

News reports said that AL Solar A was built in 2017 and 2018 and developed in cooperation with Alabama Power and Walmart to meet the retail company’s clean energy goals.

The settlement agreement with American Falls Solar named an asset management executive and the general counsel with Arizona-based renewable energy developer Arevon. The company’s web site includes two solar projects at American Falls, Idaho. Renewable Energy World asked for comment on the settlement but had not heard back prior to publication.

And a search showed that Swinerton/SOLV Energy provided engineering services for projects bearing the same names as those listed in the settlement agreement. A spokesperson for SOLV Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An EPA enforcement official said in a statement that the settlements “send an important message to the site owners of solar farm projects that these facilities must be planned and built in compliance with all environmental laws, including those that prevent the discharge of sediment into local waters during construction.”

Solar farm construction involves clearing and grading large sections of land, which EPA and DOJ said “can lead to significant erosion and major runoff of sediment” into waterways if site stormwater controls are inadequate. The agencies said that increased sediment in waterways can injure, suffocate or kill aquatic life; damage aquatic ecosystems; and harm drinking water treatment systems. 

Solar farm developers and contractors are required to get construction stormwater permits under the Clean Water Act and comply with the terms of those permits. 

Each of the complaints alleged that the owners of these four sites violated their construction stormwater permits in similar ways: failing to design, install, and maintain proper stormwater controls; failing to conduct regular site inspections; failing to employ qualified personnel to conduct inspections; and failing to accurately report and address stormwater issues at the site. 

The complaints filed against AL Solar and American Falls Solar also allege unauthorized discharges of excess sediment from their construction sites to nearby waterways.

Construction at the Idaho and Alabama sites is now complete and permit coverage has been terminated. As a result, the settlements only include civil penalties. 

The United States and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) filed a stipulation of settlement with AL Solar in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama along with its complaint. Under that settlement, AL Solar will pay a $250,000 civil penalty to the United States and a $250,000 civil penalty to ADEM.

A second stipulation of settlement involving American Falls was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. Under that settlement, American Falls will pay a civil penalty of $416,500 to the United States. 

In addition, consent decrees with Prairie State and Big River were filed by the United States and the State of Illinois. Because both Illinois sites remain subject to Clean Water Act permits, these two settlements require the owners to ensure compliance with those permits until construction at the sites is complete and the United States and state agree that permit coverage can be terminated. 

In addition, Prairie State will pay a civil penalty of $157,500 to the United States and $67,500 to the state of Illinois, and Big River will pay a civil penalty of $122,500 to the United States and $52,500 to the state of Illinois. 

The consent decrees were lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois and are subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. More information is available here.

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Author: David Wagman