The Oregon Capitol (Salem Reporter archives)

A prominent Salem development company is being fined by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for polluting a marsh in Monmouth, killing nearby plant life.

Regulators found that Mountain West Investment Corp. last January discharged turbid, discolored water from an apartment construction site.

The DEQ said in an Oct. 8 notice that it was levying fines totaling $33,012. The action was first reported by the Statesman-Journal.

In a 19-page notice, state regulators laid out five violations by the firm and its construction contractors while building close to wetlands. The initial violation that spurred the inspections, however, was water pollution.

According to the notice, Mountain West failed to contain erosion, allowing dirt, silt, sediment and other particles to fall into waters while they worked to build 12 three-story apartments in Monmouth.

Mountain West's contractors then allowed the water to flow through a trench and a pipe into a ditch, which then carried the water through a marsh and, ultimately, to the south fork of Ash Creek.

The DEQ enforces laws to protect waterways during construction. Dirt, silt and other particles can fall into waterways and make them murkier – or more “turbid.” Turbid waters can disrupt photosynthesis in plants and hurt aquatic life’s ability to breathe, feed and mate, according to the agency.

The turbidity of the water from Mountain West’s construction yard exceeded state limits -- meeting the state’s definition of pollution -- and contributed to a “die-off of vegetation” at a nearby marsh, the agency said in its findings.

David Jacobson, Mountain West director of construction, told Salem Reporter he couldn’t speak to what killed the vegetation. He said the discharged water only contained sediment.

“It’s just water that has more dirt in it. There was nothing on the site that would have caused plants to die. I just don’t know anything about that,” he said. “There were no chemicals. We did testing. It was just sediment that was included (in the water) with that granite, gravel that was dropped on site.”

Jane Hickman, DEQ environmental law specialist, said Wednesday that photos from the investigation showed the turbid water squelched the wetland and left it "barren."

"There was no vegetation at all left there," she said. "Where they were working, it just looks like barren dirt -- ground, like the rest of the site."

Jacobson attributed the problems to a hired contractor whom he declined to name.

Mountain West intends to pay the fines without contest, Jacobson said.

“It was a mistake that was made and we acknowledge it,” he said.

The notice lays out a chain of events that led to the fine.

On Dec. 21, 2018, a Monmouth city staffer told state regulators about seeing turbid, discolored water flowing from the construction site and into the nearby ditch. Construction crews had dug a trench under a fence, allowing the water to flow freely from the site.

The staffer also reported seeing a silt fence, used to contain erosion, built “ineffectively” around a stockpile of dirt, the notice said.

State regulators then visited the site at least three times from Jan. 3 to Jan. 7 and witnessed more problems. A rock dam had been placed near the trench, but a pipe allowed the turbid water to continue to head to the ditch.

"They had silt fencing and they dug a trench below it," Hickman said. "They did things to actually undermine treatment measures there."

Jacobson told Salem Reporter that neither Mountain West nor its contractor were aware of the ditch until regulators told them Jan. 7.

State regulators tested water at the ditch and found they exceeded state levels on turbidity.

Additionally, state regulators reported that construction activity encroached on a protected wetland. Regulators also noted that construction workers had no records documenting their required inspections.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspected the property, too, on Jan. 29. The military branch is tasked with protecting waterways throughout the country.

According to the notice, the Corps found Mountain West hadn’t taken steps to control erosion as required in their permits. For example, the Corps noted a lack of straw tubes under fences to keep sediment from flowing.

Regulators also assessed Mountain West for providing one instead of the two required site entrances for workers and not placing bioswales that strain pollutants from water runoff.

The largest assessment, of $9,179, resulted from DEQ’s finding that Mountain West and its contractors couldn’t prove they were inspecting themselves as required.

Jacobson said the crews did run inspections, but had no records because work was only a month underway. A temporary office hadn’t been installed yet, he said.

Hickman noted that Mountain West has undertaken large-scale projects in the past and been through the process.

"They really should know better," she said.

DISCLOSURE: Larry Tokarski, president of Mountain West, is a co-founder of Salem Reporter.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.