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Johnny Cat's muddy water costs $19,600

GOLD HILL — A local contractor will pay $19,600 for dumping muddy water into the Rogue River and temporarily shutting down this city's drinking water filtration plant, environmental officials say.

Jacksonville-based contractor Johnny Cat caused dirty, turbid water to spill into the river near Gold Hill on three occasions during construction of the city's water intake treatment plant in the summer of 2005, said Les Carlough, senior policy adviser for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality office of compliance and enforcement.

"DEQ considers this one of their more important cases because of the impact on (Gold Hill's) drinking water and because turbidity is one of the most important issues of water pollution in the state," Carlough said.

On March 24, 2006, DEQ issued penalties totalling $29,600 against Johnny Cat claiming attempts to create a dry building area for the in-stream construction work had crews releasing dirty water into the river. The violations occurred on July 20-21 and Sept. 28, 2005, Carlough said.

About one in 10 violations receives financial penalties, Carlough said. Johnny Cat agreed that it committed three violations but paid a reduced settlement of $19,600, he added.

"Typically we demand full payment as condition of settlement, and that's what they did," said Carlough.

John Holmes, owner of Johnny Cat, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

Carlough said on July 20, crews used dirty rock to build two nesting coffer dams so they could create a dry construction zone for the intake facility which was being built within the banks of the Rogue River. The dirty rock created a turbidity issue in water both inside and out of the temporary construction dams.

"They had said they were going to use washed rock to do the project and they didn't," said Carlough.

On July 21, project divers were unable to do their work because they couldn't see through the murky water inside the coffer dams (caused by using dirty rock). Crews punctured the dams in order to release the turbid water into the river, Carlough said.

The plume of muddy water was reported to DEQ officials from Gold Hill to Grants Pass. The decrease in water clarity caused by the violations also forced the temporary shutdown of Gold Hill's drinking water filtration plant, said Public Works Director Royal Gasso.

"Basically the city had to shut down its drinking water until the turbidity spike passed the city's intake," said Gasso.

The incident occurred during peak summer water usage and caused concerns the city would not be able to keep up with consumer demands, Gasso said.

On Sept. 28, 2005, Johnny Cat crews were fast approaching a Department of State Lands deadline for in-water work, Carlough said. "So they removed the coffer dams in one fell swoop and created turbidity again," said Carlough.

That increased turbidity and the settling of suspended sediment can harm fish and other aquatic life by covering food sources, eroding fish gills and smothering fish eggs, Carlough said.

"That creates a pretty big problem," he said.

For each violation, Johnny Cat was fined about $10,000, Carlough said. Johnny Cat Inc. appealed the penalties and a hearing was set, said Carlough. But both parties recently agreed to the reduced settlement amount of $19,600, he said.

"But the violations stand," said Carlough. "We've just settled on the amount of the penalty."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.