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Judge settles Telluride wetlands dispute

 

The Environmental Protection Agency has won a seven-year dispute with the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. (Telski) over the resort's destruction of protected wetlands that feed the San Miguel River, one of two undammed rivers left in Colorado.

U.S. District Court Judge John Kane accepted a $3.8 million settlement against the company last month, requiring that Telski restore 17 acres of wetland - less than a third of the area the EPA had accused it of destroying.

The case goes back to 1989, when EPA investigators charged that Telski had violated the federal Clean Water Act by filling 60 acres of rare alpine wetlands to build a golf course.

Federal officials called the violations "knowing and flagrant," but the company insisted it was unaware of the laws and that it filled only 6.3 acres of wetlands. Resort executives said the EPA blamed the company for damage that was actually caused by decades of irrigation and grazing.

"We thought we were complying with everything we were supposed to be complying with," said Mike Shimkonis, a company spokesman.

Kane's ruling is the third-largest financial settlement ever levied against a developer in a wetlands-destruction case and the biggest in the EPA's six-state Rocky Mountain region.

The ruling ends seven years of EPA investigations and closed-door legal wrangling. Telski must pay $1.1 million in civil penalties and fund a three-year, $2.7 million restoration, including replanting part of the golf course with native vegetation.

The restoration order also covers three seasonal mountain streams that Telski workers altered to dry up the wetlands. The streams drain the ski mountains above the resort town of Mountain Village. Before the alteration, the streams fed the wetland, which in turn fed the nearby San Miguel River.

John Brink, the EPA's chief wetlands enforcement officer for the Rocky Mountain region, praised the settlement. "It's fairly rare in a Clean Water Act case to exceed a million dollars in penalties," he said. "So it's sizable, it's substantial."

Telski officials said they were relieved the case had ended, and in a statement, Telski chairman Ron Allred apologized "for disturbing the wetlands in the first place."

Still, the settlement did not entirely satisfy environmental groups.

"We can live with it," said Colorado Environmental Coalition spokesman Rocky Smith. "It's not exactly a slap on the wrist, but it's not a condemnation, either." Smith was more critical of the EPA: "The case didn't get filed soon enough for all the wetlands violations to meet the statute of limitations." The settlement was preferable to a previous attempt to end the dispute, he added.

In 1993, the government and Telski went before Judge Kane with an agreement that would have fined the company $143,000 and required it to make a new wetland outside the San Miguel watershed. Kane threw out the proposal, calling it too lenient in a scathing judgment that scolded the EPA for being swayed by what the judge called "well-heeled" ski resort attorneys.

The writer is a former reporter for the Telluride Daily Planet.