Corps’ Camp decision challenged

Published 8:20 pm Monday, October 20, 2014

A former employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes his opposition to the Corps’ preliminary wetlands assessment of a Holland Road property proposed for development as an intermodal hub has cost him his job with the Corps.

Officials at the Norfolk District office of the Corps of Engineers, however, maintain the preliminary designation of much of that property as buildable did not involve “vendettas or personality conflicts.”

Just west of Holland Road’s existing CenterPoint Intermodal Center, the Camp property is owned by Scott Camp, who wants to develop an intermodal hub there taking advantage of the Port of Virginia and convenient rail access.

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After working with the district for more than five years to try to get an assessment that would support his plans, Camp was riled last year when more of the 650-acre parcel of land was declared wetlands than he had hoped for.

Claiming a land grab, he appealed to the Corps’ North Atlantic Division for a jurisdictional determination on one portion of his land as well as preliminary jurisdictional determinations for two more areas.

But a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is frustrated for the opposite reason. It claimed the Corps’ assessment incorrectly delineated as uplands around 300 acres of wetlands.

PEER has asked the EPA to review the assessment.

Environmental scientist Greg Culpepper was a Norfolk District staffer until a couple of weeks ago, when he was fired after 24 years of service.

According to district spokesman Mark Haviland, the firing was “absolutely not related to the Camp property — not in the slightest.”

But Culpepper, who is appealing to get his job back, was critical of the Corps’ actions regarding the Camp property, and he was vocal in his to colleagues and superiors that the tract was primarily wetlands.

Culpepper believes this factored heavily in his dismissal.

Culpepper said he reached his conclusion about the property after the Corps project manager for it asked him to take a look. Culpepper then visited property and viewed aerial photographs, he said, and contacted an environmental consultant who had been a sounding board for several years — someone Culpepper knew had earlier analyzed the Camp property.

“It’s screaming wet,” Doug Davis, a consultant with decades of experience as an environmental scientist, told Culpepper.

According to a federal lawsuit Davis later filed, Culpepper repeatedly cited his assessment in Corps staff meetings from mid-2011 into last year.

But conclusions contradicted those of the project manager’s section chief, Lynette Rhodes, the lawsuit alleges, and Rhodes allegedly retaliated against Davis by opposing him on another Suffolk project the Corps was working on — the replacement of a bridge on Robbie Road, upon which he was consulting for the city of Suffolk.

Davis contends the Corps approved the bridge project under a permit it didn’t qualify for.

Haviland said the Norfolk District “stands by the permit decision.”

Davis filed suit in Norfolk Federal Court against Rhodes as well as Tom Walker, regulatory branch chief with the Norfolk District, and Col. Paul Olsen, the district’s commander. He accused them of conspiring to injure his professional reputation in retaliation for his stance on the Camp property. But Dana J. Boente, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, concluded the Rhodes and Walker were federal employees acting within the scope of their jobs at the time of their alleged conduct, effectively conferring immunity to them under the Westfall Act.

According to Haviland, the Corps process is the same for any wetlands delineation.

“We follow that process, we make sure we are staying within our responsibilities (and) we know that every decision we make is subject to review by environmental groups, by legal authorities or by Congress,” he said.

“Every step of the way, it’s important to make sure that our decision is correct, that our decision is made based on the right science, that we have stayed within our authority and that we are not straying from that path.

“Absolutely and unequivocally, there is no room in that process for vendettas or personality conflicts.”

Following Camp’s appeal, the Corps’ North Atlantic Division has asked the Norfolk District to review its determination on his property, “and also basically go back through our documentation and make sure we have got everything we need to have,” Haviland said. “That’s what we are doing right now.”

PEER’s appeal has not led to any formal request for information by the EPA, Haviland said.

Davis believes the Norfolk District “deliberately misrepresented the facts” on the Camp property to give its owner special treatment. “I have many clients who would love to get the kind of treatment on their land that Mr. Camp got on his land,” Davis said.

Haviland vigorously denies the claims of unequal treatment. “In the past calendar year we have done more than 4,000 regulatory actions, and somewhere around 2,000 of those permitting actions. We have to be consistent,” he said.