Why were these trees killed?
Government contractors improperly cut and removed dozens of healthy trees along the St. Marys River while cleaning up after Hurricane Matthew according to St. Marys Riverkeeper Rick Frey, and Frey thinks it may have been done to increase their compensation from the state.
“Apparently a post-Matthew grant or funding that came through (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (which) managed the contract for the state and obviously the money was to clean up debris resulting from Matthew, specifically to clean up debris on the river, particularly in areas (where debris was an) obstacle to navigation,” Frey explained in a recent interview.
“When the funding was let out of the DEP, it was let to contractors. One was (Alabama-based) Crowder Gulf. They were the actual people that did the clearing of the debris,” he said. “Tetra Tech (of Jacksonville), their job was to monitor Crowder Gulf to make sure Crowder did what it was supposed to do.”
Frey explained that Crowder Gulf was paid “by the volume of debris collected” and offloaded at the Camden County landfill.
“Problem was, they were indiscriminately cutting trees on the bank of the Florida side, and there really was no debris or damage from Matthew west of (the) I-95 bridge. You wouldn’t have known there had been a hurricane,” he said.
“Trees were being cut down, and why is this when the hurricane had no or little effect? Because these guys were indiscriminately cutting. On two barges, they were cutting down trees (and) that produced a lot of volume that they could take over (to the landfill) and document what they did,” Frey said.
Frey said that in many cases, the contractors had to trespass on private property by as much as 6 to 8 feet to reach the trees that were removed.
A person answering the phone at Crowder Gulf said no one at the company could talk about the issue and that all inquiries should be directed to Tetra Tech. Multiple calls to Tetra Tech seeking comment were not returned.
“The counties knew nothing about this. The landowners were never informed of this. There was no preliminary notification locally to anybody,” Frey said. “We didn’t know who was doing this or why they were doing this.”
Frey said he contacted Scott Woolen, a project manager with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“After getting feedback about this situation, (Woolen) communicated on Friday, March 3, to the contractors that no living vegetation was to be removed even if laying over in the river. On Tuesday, March 7, the local Tetra Tech monitor informed me that chainsaws were no longer permitted on the barges. On Thursday, two days later, the work was suddenly terminated, and both contractors vacated the staging area on this stretch of the river,” Frey related in a follow-up email to the News-Leader.
“What I want to do – I’m glad they stopped the job – but on the other hand, I’ve got timber owners up and down the river who have had trees cut and have had no warning of this (and) didn’t authorize it to be done,” he said.
“I would like to get a notification out to landowners on the Florida side (of the St. Marys River). If they have had any trees cut on their property, let us know. Send pictures so that we have a much better idea of the size of the problem we’re dealing with here,” Frey explained. “The mile I paddled, there were a significant number of trees
down. There was considerable damage.”
“With these trees down, it kind of looked like hell. I’m sort of feeling like I’d like somebody to pay for this. Some of these are 100- or 200-year-old trees,” he claimed.
Frey said he also filed a complaint with FEMA about the issue.
“They have a division for abuse and fraud. It’s for the purpose of reporting abuses, let’s say, during the aftermath during a storm cleanup. This is a place for them to call and report,” he said.