When you buy a car and register it at the Department of Motor vehicles, that’s not the last thing you ever have to do with your car. In New York State, for example, vehicle owners are required to get an inspection annually. Ignoring the law and not getting an inspection can result in a fine or even lead to the owner having to turn in the license plates and take the car off the road. Similarly, obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a project is subject to follow-up compliance inspections, and permittees are expected to construct and maintain an approved project according to the terms and conditions of the permit issued.
The Corps of Engineers Buffalo District has staff dedicated to perform compliance inspections in areas of New York and Ohio. These inspectors are biologists who specialize in identifying issues along project sites that might negatively impact ecosystems and the broader environment. The team performs approximately 200 compliance inspections each year to ensure local municipalities, county governments, agencies, and members of the public are following the terms and conditions established in the permit issued to them.
The inspectors’ local outreach efforts sometimes include countywide visits. A common project that county governments request a permit for is installing culverts to all allow for a road to pass over a moving water source such as a stream or river. For these types of projects, inspectors are ensuring that aquatic life may easily and sufficiently pass through the culvert, unimpeded. Some requirements dictate how deeply imbedded into the ground a culvert must be. For example, in New York State, 20 percent of a culvert’s vertical rise should be imbedded.
An inspector may cite a permit holder for noncompliance when a culvert rests too high above the base of the stream or river, for example. Once cited, the permit holder will receive a letter stating what part of the permit is in noncompliance and it will also provide a requirement to take corrective action to resolve the issue by a specific date.
“Some issues can be resolved in just a few days,” said biologist Tina Stonemetz, an inspector with the Buffalo District, “but for bigger issues such as having to remove a culvert and reposition it, we generally provide a 30-day timeframe for the permittee to remedy the situation.”
“Generally when we grant someone a permit, we’ve already discussed with them what they can and cannot do, specifying what materials are permissible,” said biologist Douglas Kapusinski, another Buffalo District inspector.
The Corps inspectors pride themselves in fostering positive relationships with the community and therefore when an issue does arise, the team works closely with the permittee with the ultimate goal to achieve compliance with federal law.
In regards to questions from the permittees, “We prefer to be called before a county engineer or resident begins a project,” said Harold Keppner, Chief of the Monitoring and Enforcement Section of the Buffalo District’s Regulatory Department. “By going over requirements early, they can save a lot of money and time by not having to fix a problem later on. We work very hard to educate the public about what is appropriate and acceptable and generally we see that the public is very receptive.”
Keppner noted that people are often surprised when the Corps of Engineers contacts them for a compliance inspection because they assumed the agency’s role ends once a permit is issued.
“People are grateful for the information we provide because they may not have realized the environmental impacts of some of their decisions”, said Keppner. “They enjoy the face time with our biologists who actually go out to the site and go over the regulations with them in person.”
In the rare circumstance that a permittee fails to comply with a permit requirement even after the established deadline and continued contact with the Corps, inspectors may recommend pursuit of administrative penalties, revoking or suspending a permit and if necessary, work with the U.S. Attorney’s office to obtain an order for the permit holder to comply with the permit’s stated requirements.
The Corps of Engineers compliance inspectors regularly convey new permit requirements to municipalities that regularly seek permits but owners of private property may not be as familiar with what is involved in obtaining a permit. For more information about permit compliance, applying for a permit, how to report a violation or to contact one of the Buffalo District’s regulatory compliance inspectors, visit the Buffalo District website at http://www.lrb.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/.