The Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced settlements with four separate solar farm owners to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. The alleged violations were construction permit violations and stormwater mismanagement at large-scale solar generating facilities: a site near LaFayette, Alabama, owned by AL Solar A LLC (AL Solar); a site near American Falls, Idaho, owned by American Falls Solar LLC (American Falls); a site in Perry County, Illinois, owned by Prairie State Solar LLC (Prairie State); and a site in White County, Illinois, owned by Big River Solar LLC (Big River). The states of Alabama and Illinois joined in the Alabama and Illinois settlements.
These four solar farm owners are all subsidiaries of large international finance and investment companies, and all four used a common construction contractor for the development of their solar farms. Together, the four settlements with these defendants secure a total of $1.34 million in civil penalties and ensure that remaining construction will take place in compliance with Clean Water Act stormwater permits. The settlements resolved claims alleged in four separate complaints the government also filed today.
“While the development of renewable energy holds great promise for combatting climate change, the solar energy industry must comply with the Clean Water Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The proposed settlements demonstrate the Department of Justice’s commitment to require those developing these facilities, including the site owners, to comply with the law, or be held accountable for construction practices that put our waterways at risk.”
“The development of solar energy is a key component of this Administration’s efforts to combat climate change,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “These settlements send an important message to the site owners of solar farm projects that these facilities must be planned and built in compliance with all environmental laws, including those that prevent the discharge of sediment into local waters during construction.”
Solar farm construction involves clearing and grading large sections of land, which can lead to significant erosion and major runoff of sediment into waterways if stormwater controls at the site are inadequate. Increased sediment in waterways can injure, suffocate or kill aquatic life; damage aquatic ecosystems; and cause significant harm to drinking water treatment systems. To avoid these harms to the environment and public health, parties responsible for construction of solar farms are required to get construction stormwater permits under the Clean Water Act and comply with the terms of those permits. Each of the complaints filed today allege that the owners of these four sites violated their construction stormwater permits in similar ways: failing to design, install, and maintain proper stormwater controls; failing to conduct regular site inspections; failing to employ qualified personnel to conduct inspections; and failing to accurately report and address stormwater issues at the site. The complaints filed against AL Solar and American Falls Solar also allege unauthorized discharges of excess sediment from their construction sites to nearby waterways.
Construction at the Idaho and Alabama sites is now complete and permit coverage has been terminated. Therefore, these settlements only include civil penalties. The United States and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) filed a stipulation of settlement with AL Solar in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama along with its complaint. Under that settlement, AL Solar will pay a $250,000 civil penalty to the United States and a $250,000 civil penalty to ADEM. A second stipulation of settlement involving American Falls was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. Under that settlement, American Falls will pay a civil penalty of $416,500 to the United States.
In addition, consent decrees with Prairie State and Big River were filed by the United States and the State of Illinois. Because both Illinois sites remain subject to Clean Water Act permits, these two settlements require the owners to ensure compliance with those permits until construction at the sites is complete and the United States and State agree that permit coverage can be terminated. In addition, Prairie State will pay a civil penalty of $157,500 to the United States and $67,500 to the state of Illinois, and Big River will pay a civil penalty of $122,500 to the United States and $52,500 to the state of Illinois. The consent decrees were lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois and are subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.
The consent decrees can be viewed at the Department of Justice website here.