Government seeks $3 million from Birmingham for fish kill

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants the city of Birmingham to pay nearly $3 million in penalties for actions city workers took to clear a dam that resulted in the death of nearly 12,000 fish.

The Service issued Thursday a notice of violations to the city of Birmingham for killing 11,760 watercress darters, an endangered species protected by the Endangered Species Act, and also for injuries to some 8,900 additional darters.  The Service, in the statement to FOX6 News, said it is seeking a civil penalty totaling $2,975,000.  

The Service said its action stems from an incident that happened September 19, 2008, when a city maintenance crew removed a beaver dam from the Roebuck Springs pool in Hawkins Park.  The crew also breached an underlying earthen dam that formed the spring pool where more than 20,000 of the small endangered fish lived.  Breaching the dam quickly drained the spring pool and stranded and killed thousands of watercress darters among a mass of drying aquatic plants. The massive fish kill resulted in the loss of more than half of the largest known population of this species.

The Service said watercress darters are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and are a trust resource protected by Alabama law.  The only populations in the world are found in five spring pools and spring brooks in Jefferson County, Alabama, within the metropolitan area of Birmingham.

"Our ultimate goal at Roebuck Springs is to restore and protect the habitat of the watercress darter.  That's always been the plan," said Cynthia K. Dohner, Southeast Regional Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  "We want to do what's best for the fish, and our work is far from over."

The Service said early negotiations with the City of Birmingham in an effort to restore and maintain the habitat of the watercress darter were partially successful.  Initially, the City accepted responsibility for breaching the earthen dam and quickly cooperated on installation of a sandbag dam, aerator, water quality monitoring device and, later, installation of the permanent water-control structure and informational signs.  The Service said more needs to be done to protect this endangered fish species, which continues to be threatened by city-controlled facilities and the surrounding urbanization.  

The Service said in Thursday's statement the city of Birmingham has declined to take several additional actions, including identifying the recharge area for Roebuck Springs and taking actions to protect the recharge waters from contamination, diverting or filtering storm sewer discharges into Roebuck Springs pool or diverting or filtering runoff from the city's recreation center parking lot into the spring run, improving the habitat for the species in the spring run and in a second significant pool along the spring run, or conducting a public education effort about the species.

The Service said the City has 45 days to respond to the Notice of Violations by paying the proposed civil penalty, seeking informal negotiations with the Service, or filing a Petition for Relief pursuant to 50 Code of Federal Regulation 11.12.  

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