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Thursday, October 27, 2016

By Jay Price, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, NC — Two federal agencies are investigating whether the managers of North Carolina State University’s massive Hofmann Forest violated the Clean Water Act by illegally draining wetlands.

An NCSU foundation is in the midst of selling the 79,000-acre forest to a company headed by a large-scale farmer from the Midwest. A small group of foresters and environmentalists is fighting the $150 million deal in court.

Regulators from the Army Corps of Engineers visited the forest in January to check the ditches there after the North Carolina Coastal Federation asked the Corps about the history of several thousand acres of cleared land in the forest. The regulators found extensive draining by ditches. Mickey Sugg, a regulator with the Corps’ Wilmington office, said in an interview this week that at least some of the drainage work appeared to be illegal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is involved in the investigation, and it will determine whether the ditching falls within an exemption in the Clean Water Act that allows some drainage improvements for tree farming, Sugg said.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said she was aware of the case but declined to outline the possible range of penalties.

According to an EPA website, penalties for improperly draining wetlands can include administrative fines of up to $17,000 per day of violation to a maximum of $177,500, and being required to restore improperly drained wetlands. Criminal charges also are possible but only in extreme cases. The website says the agency likes to resolve violations through voluntary compliance or administrative enforcement.