A civil penalty of $48,683 assessed to Union County in May by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has been reduced significantly following an appeal.

The fine, issued for violating conditions of Union County’s general permit related to the U.S. Forest Service rappel base constructed at the La Grande/Union County Airport, has been reduced to $16,258 after the appeal, it was announced at a meeting of the Union County Board of Commissioners Wednesday.

The commissioners voted unanimously to have the county pay the fine, following a presentation by Union County Public Works Director Doug Wright.

The fine was issued by the DEQ because of alleged noncompliance with the erosion control permit it issued Union County for the rappel base project. Wright said that when a DEQ official visited the rappel base in March, he noted there were no erosion control devices at the site.

Wright said that later a concrete washout area to prevent contaminants from reaching water sources and other erosion control devices were installed by the contractor for the rappel base project, Wellens Farwell Construction of Enterprise. 

An email to The Observer from Laura Gleim, a public affairs specialist for DEQ, said the installation of these devices made the settlement possible. 

“DEQ reduced the penalty because Union County corrected the violations we had identified and implemented the required pollution control measures at the site,” Gleim wrote.

One reason the DEQ required erosion control devices in its permit was to protect the nearby Gekeler Slough from contaminated water. Wright said, though, that even without erosion control devices the slough was not endangered by the construction project.

“The area is flat, so there was not a threat to Gekeler Slough,” he said. “Runoff could not have gotten to it.”

The ditch that connects to Gekeler Slough is “designated critical habitat for threatened Snake River Basin Steelhead Trout,” according to a May 20 letter from the DEQ to Union County. 

Wright said that Wellens Farwell Construction has volunteered to pay the fine. He said the fine will be paid by Union County and Wellens Farwell will reimburse the county for it. 

The public works director said Wellens Farwell has been outstanding to work with and he appreciates the honesty the construction company has shown throughout this process. 

“It has done an excellent job of building the rappel base. It is a very good contractor,” Wright said.

Construction of the rappel base was funded with a $3 million loan Union County received from the state and a $1 million Connect Oregon grant it received from the state. The U.S. Forest Servicing is leasing the building from Union County. The base, which is now operational, was completed earlier this year. 

The base is for helicopter rappelling flights. Helicopter rappelling is a means of quickly delivering firefighters to remote areas. Once dispatched, a helicopter and its crew fly to the location of a wildland fire. 

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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