CUMMING — Much to the dismay of some Forsyth County residents, little has changed in the nearly 21 months since an earthen dam collapsed during heavy rainfall, washing out a busy residential road and sending torrents of water silt into a nearby cove of Lake Lanier.
“Basically, the only thing changing is that mud is still pouring in,” said Mike Leahy, who lives on the affected cove. “No action, nothing has happened as far as I’m aware.”
The inaction comes despite the involvement of several parties, including the city of Cumming and the Mashburn Family trust, and in apparent violation of an agreed-upon remedy with the state Environmental Protection Division.
Bert Langley, the EPD’s district coordinator, said the agency has been put in an “uncomfortable position” by the violated 2013 joint-consent order in which the city and family trust agreed to stop the flow of silt.
The plan called for the construction of a weir, or step-like structure that lets water flow over the top while holding some back, similar to a traditional dam. Once finished, the city would dredge and clean the sediment that’s collected in Little Ridge Creek and the Lanier cove.
“The order has been violated by not having a joint plan submitted,” Langley said. “Technically, it appears that both parties are in violation since it is a joint order, it requires an action together. [But] it appears, from the EPD perspective at this point, it is the city that has changed course in midstream so to speak.”
Langley said that no extension of the order was ever requested, and the EPD is attempting to get the state attorney general’s office involved.
“Currently, we have submitted to the attorney general’s office a request for them to schedule a civil penalties hearing,” Langley said. “The state law allows that is a party to an order such as this one violates that order they can be held liable for civil penalties up to $25,000 per day of violation.”
The situation dates back to May 19, 2013. During a period of heavy rain, the earthen dam of Lake Alice, a small lake near Market Place Boulevard that had stood for about 80 years, washed away,
The ensuing torrent of water damaged nearby Sanders Road and dumped sediment into a Lanier cove.
To further complicate the issue, the road was owned by Forsyth County, the dam by the Mashburn Family Trust and part of the water in the lake by the city. The three parties have since been sued by those affected by the collapse, part of what likely will be a lengthy litigation process.
“From the state’s perspective, we have an executed order that is jointly executed between the city of Cumming and the Mashburn Family Trust,” Langley said. “That order, among other things, requires them to develop a corrective action plan to combat the sediment that is being released in Lake Lanier and the long-term stabilization of the former Lake Alice bed.”
“EPD is not interested in trying to get into proportioning blame or cost here, that’s between the two of them to work out. We’re just interested in the outcome.”
All was going according to plan until the city issued a stop work order in summer 2014.
“Pretty much at the ninth hour, the city informed us that they were not in agreement with the plan that’s been developed and were not going to be interested in being a party of that,” Langley said.
“That is contrary to what the order requires. The agreement is for them to jointly work on a plan and submitted jointly.”
Kevin Tallant with the law firm Miles, Hansford and Tallant, which represents the city, said he could not comment on case.
Michael Carvalho, an attorney for the family trust, said the city had intended to plant grass to stop the flow of water, which wouldn’t work.
“We had proposed a couple of different things, but the city said we’ll handle it,” Carvalho said. “Their idea was to basically plant grass in the lake basin, and we had our expert hydrologist and engineer look at it, and that just was a profoundly dumb idea. That just wasn’t going to work.”
Carvalho said he felt it would be “entirely appropriate” for the attorney general’s office get involved.
“We actually invited the AG’s to get involved at [a meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers],” he said. “I said to the EPD, ‘Please get the AG’s office involved. We are ready willing and able to move forward.’ We see this as a massive impediment to fix the system.”
“If we can’t do it, and they’re refusing let us do it, then you need to get it in front of the AG so the AG can tell them to do it.”
In a somewhat related issue, Sanders Road has been closed between Buford Dam and Mary Alice Park roads since June 2013, with the governmental stalemate over repairs unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
Repairs have been estimated at $173,000, but Cumming and Forsyth County’s governments have not been able to agree on how best to share the responsibility.
After some back-and-forth talks, officials with each agreed to pay half. However, problems arose when they also wanted to be absolved of liability by the other party in the dam collapse.
The two sides agreed to mediation on the matter in March 2014. As of this week, no resolution had been reached.