Environmental Law Issues in a Natural Disaster
Last updated on 05/24/2021 at 5:56 pm
What am I allowed to do in the streams and creeks running near my home or property, to eliminate obstructions to flow and/or re-build the stream so that it does not back-up, erode, etc.?
Short Answer: A landowner may remove woody debris or trash from a stream (e.g., debris that is blocking a culvert or accumulating around a structure), and perform “one-step” dredging of debris from a stream so long as that can be done without placing equipment in the stream or disturbing the streambed. For example, a landowner can:
- Enter on foot (use a chainsaw) & remove debris
- Pull debris out using equipment located above the streambank
Beyond that, work in or affecting a creek or stream (no matter how small) may require some type of federal and/or state permit or approval.
The West Virginia Conservation Agency (“WVCA”) is one of the primary entities coordinating such activities; to report a stream blockage, erosion or similar problem to the WVCA, call 1-866-UC-FLOOD (1-866-823-5663). The WVCA, and/or its federal partner, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”), will provide technical assistance to evaluate an issue and the best approach to addressing it. Those issues that present an immediate risk to a structure are more likely to be the subject of a NRCS-sponsored project. For less urgent projects, the WVCA and NRCS will work with a landowner to provide advice on how to obtain appropriate permit coverage to allow work to be completed.
In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) Huntington District, Regulatory Division may be able to provide direct assistance to those affected by flooding who wish to engage in stream restoration and similar projects. They can discuss with affected landowners any permit exemptions that may apply to planned work and the best way of expediting any needed approvals or permits for such work.
Detail: Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (33 U.S.C. 403) prohibits doing any work in the “navigable waters” of the U.S. that may affect the course, condition, or capacity of any such waters. “Navigable waters” includes all waters that are presently used, have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce. These would include, for example, the Ohio River, Elk River, Greenbrier River, and Kanawha River. A complete list of navigable waters in West Virginia is found on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District webpage, at www.lrh.usace.army.mil. Placing anything in such a stream, or doing anything that would modify the course of the stream or affect such a navigable water, requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”).
In addition, under state law no one may work in, or place equipment in, any West Virginia stream without first obtaining a “right of entry” permit or other approval from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (“WVDNR”)’s Office of Land and Streams. However, if you are “removing floating woody debris or trash from the stream, such as tree limbs and trash blocking the mouth of a culvert or accumulating around the piers of a bridge,” you do not need a right of entry permit so long as such work “can be performed from the stream bank without placing equipment in the stream or disturbing the streambed.” For more information as to right of entry permits, contact the Office of Land and Streams at 304.558.3225 or under the “Administration” tab at http://www.wvdnr.gov.
Under section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (33 U.S.C. § 1344), a permit is required whenever a proposed activity involves a “discharge” or placement of “dredged or fill material” into “waters of the United States.” The term “waters of the United States” is defined broadly, to include virtually any small stream, even those that typically flow only seasonally. Likewise, the term “fill material” is defined broadly, to include anything that changes the bottom elevation of a stream. So, any effort to “re-build” a stream bank or affect the course or direction of a stream would be prohibited unless a CWA § 404 permit has been obtained. The Corps, along with the federal EPA, administers the CWA § 404 permit program. Persons who are found responsible for unauthorized placement of fill into a stream may face administrative orders to comply, civil penalties of as much as $37,500 per day per violation, and court-ordered injunctive relief. When a § 404 permit is required, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (“WVDEP”) must issue a “water quality certification” under CWA § 401 before such a § 404 permit becomes effective.
The Corps has issued a special “Regional [§ 404] Permit for Stream Restoration Activities Performed by the West Virginia Conservation Agency” that provides a streamlined way of authorizing work in cooperation with landowners in alleviating hazards to life and property resulting from sudden watershed impairments. The types of projects covered by this permit including debris and deposition (sediment) removal, bank stabilization, stream erosion repair, and restoration of bridges or utilities. The WVCA coordinates all work under this Regional Permit, and must submit a list of all potentially covered projects prior to the closing date of the disaster declaration. Therefore, affected landowners who may wish to seek coverage and assistance under this permit should contact the WVCA as soon as possible. To report a stream blockage, call 1-866-UC-FLOOD (1-866-823-5663).
Can I create a new ditch or take other steps to drain standing water from my property into a nearby creek or stream?
Short Answer: Flood waters likely contain various substances, such as sewage, petroleum products, and other pollutants. Before digging a ditch, installing piping, or otherwise discharging standing water as a result of flooding into a creek or stream, a water discharge permit is likely required from the WVDEP – known as a WV/NPDES permit (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System). You should contact WVDEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management at 304.926.0440 before draining any flood water into a creek or stream.
Detail: The federal Clean Water Act and the West Virginia Water Pollution Control Act both prohibit the discharge of any pollutant from a “point source” into streams or other “waters of the United States” or “waters of the State” without a WV/NPDES permit. A “point source” means any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, such as a pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, discrete fissure, or container. Piping or channeling flood water into a stream would likely be considered the discharge of a pollutant that requires a WV/NPDES permit
How do I do dispose of the furniture, household items, trash, and general debris that I need to remove from my property?
Short Answer: County solid waste and/or other authorities are collecting waste at the curbside or as close as possible to the sites of damaged homes and other structures and removing it to designated accumulation areas. County employees and/or landfill operators are coordinating with the WVDEP on hazardous waste separation instructions for flood debris disposal areas. Landowners can assist in that effort by identifying to collection personnel any potentially hazardous wastes (fuels, oils, paints, pesticides, etc.) that are contained within flood debris piles picked up from their property.
Detail: Any questions regarding solid and hazardous waste disposal in flood-damaged areas may be directed to WVDEP Homeland Security and Emergency Response Unit 304-926-0499.
Can I make a small fire to burn tree cuttings, vegetation, wood, etc.?
Short Answer: Generally, open burning is illegal in West Virginia, with some exceptions. Burning of vegetation (leaves, branches and other vegetative matter) grown on the premises of a home or farm is allowed if it does not create a nuisance and if it is not prohibited by local ordinances. Land clearing debris may also be opened burned if it is approved by the WVDEP. It is illegal to open burn the following:
- Household trash such as cardboard, boxes, etc.
- Construction, building or demolition materials (lumber, flooring, roofing material, carpet, plastic, Styrofoam, etc.
- Wood pallets and other packaging materials
- Tires or other rubber products
- Asbestos-containing materials including building materials
- Insulation from copper wire
- Waste paints, waste oil, or solvents
Detail: Pursuant to 45 W.Va. CSR § 6-3, open burning is prohibited in West Virginia with limited exceptions, as described above. If vegetation is open burned it must first be thoroughly dried (at least 10 days). If land clearing debris is open burned, it must first be approved by WVDEP and there must be no other practical method for burning the material. Open burning must be conducted during daylight hours and fires must be completely extinguished and not allowed to smolder overnight. In addition, the material to be burned must be at least 10 feet from any combustible materials.
The form to request open burning of land clearing debris can be found at: http://www.dep.wv.gov/daq/Documents/Approval%20to%20Conduct%20Open%20Burning%20Form4-29.pdf