The United States Justice Department and U.S. EPA announced that Swinerton Builders has agreed to pay a $2.3 million penalty to resolve alleged stormwater management violations during the construction of solar farms in Alabama, Idaho and Illinois.
The $2.3 million penalty will be divided between the United States, Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and State of Illinois to resolve allegations that it violated the Clean Water Act and related state laws during the construction of solar farms.
The company also agreed to undertake mitigation actions to help restore the Portneuf River in Idaho and to purchase stream credits to improve the watershed surrounding the Alabama site. The states of Alabama and Illinois joined the United States in the settlement.
“Illegal stormwater discharges from construction projects can contaminate municipal drinking water systems and harm aquatic life, which is why EPA, the Justice Department, and our state partners worked together to hold Swinerton Builders accountable for the company’s violations of the Clean Water Act,” said Assistant Administrator David M. Uhlmann of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Solar farms are vital to slowing the effects of climate change, but companies building solar farms must comply with environmental protection requirements just as companies must do for any other construction project.”
Swinerton is a California-based construction company that operates nationwide. Until 2021, its Swinerton Renewable Energy division was the country’s leading constructor of utility-scale solar farms.
Solar farm construction involves clearing and grading large sections of land, which can lead to significant erosion and major runoff of sediment into waterways if stormwater controls at the site are inadequate. Increased sediment in waterways can injure, suffocate or kill aquatic life, damage aquatic ecosystems and cause significant harm to drinking water treatment systems.
To avoid these harms to the environment and public health, parties responsible for construction of solar farms must obtain construction stormwater permits under the Clean Water Act and comply with the terms of those permits.
A complaint filed with the settlement alleges that during its construction of solar farms near American Falls, Idaho, Lafayette, Alabama, and Perry and White Counties, Illinois, Swinerton failed to use proper stormwater controls, did not conduct regular site inspections by qualified personnel and did not accurately report and address stormwater issues.
At the Alabama and Idaho sites, Swinerton’s actions allegedly led to unauthorized discharges of large volumes of sediment-laden stormwater into nearby waterways. The United States previously settled cases against the owners of the four solar farm sites.
To resolve the alleged Clean Water Act violations at these sites, Swinerton will pay a civil penalty of $1,614,600 to the United States, $540,500 to ADEM and $144,900 to the State of Illinois.
In addition, Swinerton will fund substantial mitigation projects to redress the excess sediment discharges at the Idaho and Alabama sites. In Idaho, Swinerton will provide $600,000 in funding toward a restoration project on the Portneuf River in nearby Pocatello. The project will capture sediment, reconnect riparian and wetland habitat, and provide a host of other environmental and recreational benefits.
In Alabama, Swinerton will purchase 14,020 stream credits in the surrounding watershed, which will help preserve the watershed to promote healthier water quality and aquatic habitats.
The Justice Department’s Environmental Enforcement Section lodged the consent decree with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. It is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. The consent decree can be viewed on the Justice Department’s website: www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.