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Clock could be running out for denuded Waynesville hillside to get green again

fr russ slopeAn earth-moving project that has left a large, visible hillside on Russ Avenue in Waynesville denuded, gouged and barren could continue into the indefinite future despite pressure from the state environmental agency monitoring the site to bring it to a close.

Caroline-A-Contracting of Maggie Valley owns the 3-acre hillside property and began clearing the trees and vegetation on the slope more than a year ago. Initially, the contractor was mining dirt and selling it for a federal environmental cleanup at a former apple orchard in Haywood County. The soil there had been contaminated by past pesticide use and was being replaced with clean soil.

That project is over, however, and the excavation company is now focused on grading the property for a potential buyer to build on at some point in the future. But, that could be years and years away.

“With the economy like it is, we’re basically kind of hanging on to it now,” said Caroline Edwards, who runs Caroline-A-Contracting with her husband Burton. “We don’t have any real plans for it at this point.”

So for the now, bulldozers and a naked plot of dirt continue to grace the once-forested hillside.

“It could go on for awhile. We are just using the dirt as needed,” Edwards said. Edwards is occasionally taking dirt from the site for other grading projects, or selling loads of it.

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The occasional and intermittent shifting of dirt is causing headaches for officials at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, however. State regulators would like to see the work come to a close so the steep hillside can be replanted with ground cover to help stem erosion.

But technically Edwards doesn’t have to seed over the site as long as it is considered “active” — in other words as long as some digging is still occurring. If no one works on the property for 21 straight days, then the site is deemed “inactive,” and the owners must plant ground cover, which is crucial to preventing erosion.

Edwards claims he has been working at the site at least once every 21 days. But, it can be difficult to tell how much work, if any, is being done since DENR only visits the property every couple weeks.

“We do realize it is a problematic site. He may go two to three weeks without grading then go back in. So it has been difficult to tell what is active and what is inactive,” said Laura Herbert, a regional supervisor with DENR.

Inspectors seem to be skeptical that the entire site on Russ Avenue is indeed still active. They questioned whether dirt is being moved around with no real purpose other than to keep the site classified as “active” and thus avoid planting ground cover.

It is also hard to independently verify whether dirt has actually been moved around as claimed. Since inspectors only come by every couple weeks, they ultimately take the contractor at his word that the site has been worked on.

“That has been one of the problems with the site. It has been difficult to determine that,” Herbert said. “Basically if he tells you if he is grading, it is active.”

DENR has taken a tougher line as of late, however, since the site has had ongoing erosion problems and is now insisting that Edwards go ahead and plant groundcover on the portion of the site clearly not part of the active grading operation. DENR has also ordered Edwards to put some kind of temporary mulch or covering on the portion of the site still in use.

“Hopefully at some point, they will finish their work and stabilize the area,” Herbert said.

DENR is responsible for overseeing the work, from approving an erosion control plan to inspecting the property regularly to make sure the erosion control safeguards are in place. If inspectors notice any problems, they make the company fix whatever the issue may be. DENR has inspected the Russ Avenue location 16 times since July 1 of last year, according to Herbert.

DENR would not provide copies of inspection reports from the site visits except in person at their regional office in Swannanoa, so the complete track record for erosion compliance isn’t clear. It has been flagged a few times for erosion problems, however, according to Herbert.

DENR received a complaint just last week about mud running off the hillside into the road.

“It’s been a difficult site because he keeps disturbing the site,” Herbert said.

On July 31, Waynesville experienced heavy rains, as much as 3 inches in an hour.

“That is pretty intense rain,” Herbert said.

Erosion safeguards are supposed to capture mud as it washes downhill, but are only designed to handle seven-plus inches in a 24-hour period. They couldn’t hold up to the steady, heavy rain on July 31.

DENR officials were alerted to the incident and have asked Caroline-A-Contracting to repair the erosion control safeguards and plant some ground cover in areas where they are no longer excavating.

The day prior, a DENR official had inspected the site and said they had failed to maintain erosion control measures and had unprotected exposed slopes. The inspector recommended that the company plant permanent vegetation in untouched areas of the land and seed and mulch areas where the grading work was on hold.

One area resident said he was surprised that runoff hasn’t been an ongoing problem given how steep the hillside is.

“It’s amazing to me it took this long to actually wash out in the road,” said Terry Sheehan of Maggie Valley, who works at a nearby auto parts store. “It made a mess when it rained the other day.”

Like many other people, Sheehan is curious about what will be built on the property.

Another man said he thought the site would have had more problems because of its topographical make-up.

“They’ve been doing a good job keeping it clean,” said Justin Phillips of Waynesville, who was standing in the parking lot of K-Mart on Russ Avenue.

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