DEQ issues violations for Barry Co. river damage

A portion of the Coldwater River where crews have been working. (April 21, 2015)

FREEPORT, Mich. (WOOD) – Several state agencies are stepping in to investigate after a contractor removed trees along and dredged the Coldwater River in Barry County.

People who live along and fish in the river contacted 24 Hour News 8 about the project that affects 14 miles of the river, which started as a clean-up effort but ended with Department of Environmental Quality issuing violations to the Barry County Drain Commission and the contractor it hired, Geiger Excavations.

“It’s so devastating. I’s tough to even talk about,” said John McKenzie, a member of the Coldwater River Watershed Council. “They showed no mercy to any living tree.”

McKenzie showed 24 Hour News 8 documents from drain commission meetings that showed the initial project called for removal of trees within the right of way or those that “hinder the flow of the drain,” and also the removal of all ash trees.

The banks of the river are now nearly bare. Dead trees, some with full root systems, are piled along the river where they once stood.

A portion of the Coldwater River where crews have been working. (April 21, 2015)
(A portion of the Coldwater River where crews have been working.)

The DEQ got several complaints about the project, so it decided to investigate and discovered dredging on the banks of the river and vegetation removal, which led to erosion concerns.

The DEQ issued a violation to both the contractor and the drain commission and ordered the work along the river to be stopped.

“We asked them to stop work and put together an assessment so we can look at both existing conditions and the short and long term environmental impact,” said Luis Saldivia, the Grand Rapids district supervisor for the Water Resources Division of the DEQ.

The process is a long one, he said, that will require cooperation from both the board and the contractor.

“We have to make sure that the contractor, for example, was he following the contract that was issued or was this something that he didn’t have the proper authorization to do from the contract?” he said.

Saldivia said the main focus at the moment is stabilizing the banks as soon as possible to prevent erosion.

A portion of the Coldwater River around which there has not been any work. (April 21, 2015)
(A portion of the Coldwater River around which there has not been any work.)

24 Hour News 8 requested the contract from both the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which serves as the chair of the multicounty drain commission board, and the Barry County Drain Commissioner. Neither would provide a copy of the contract on Tuesday.

24 Hour News 8 also attempted to talk to Roger Geiger, who owns Geiger Excavating. He wasn’t at his office Tuesday. His wife answered the door at their home, saying that he was at work and probably wouldn’t want to comment.

Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger also declined to comment, instead deferring questions to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, whose spokesperson first told 24 Hour News 8 to contact Yarger.

The Department of Agriculture said it is opening an investigation to see if anything was done wrong, and that the drain commission has retained legal counsel because of the project.

“We don’t know the full impact of what this work will have. We’re just hoping for the best but kind of expecting the worst,” said McKenzie.

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