Recently, Columbia built a 2,500-foot-long gravel road through the wetlands and across the stream so it could bring in heavy equipment to bore under a section of the right-of-way that naturalists believe may harbor an endangered species of turtle.
Susan Levitt, permit specialist for the company, said that the road was temporary and that the site would be restored to its former condition. It was built in such a way as to minimize the impact the construction project would have on the stream and wetlands, she said.
But the road has triggered an uproar among West Vincent Township residents, the Green Valleys Association, an environmental watchdog group, and state environmental officials, who said they were unaware a road was being installed.
"They did not say they would be laying down a road like they did," said Greg Kaufmann, a water-pollution biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection. "That is a possible penalty action."
Kaufmann said he was waiting for recommendations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission before he decided whether to issue any penalties.
Meanwhile, the Green Valleys Association has put the DEP and other state officials on notice that it intends to file a lawsuit over the matter. The law requires that the defendants - in this case, Columbia and several state agencies - be notified 60 days before any such suit is filed, said attorney John Wilmer, who is representing the organization.
"There are major problems out there that we want corrected," said Wilmer. "If they don't do it in 60 days, we will be in court."
The association alleges that the state failed to give proper public notice about the company's permit application, that it was improperly classified, and that the company is operating in exceptional-value areas without the proper permits.
Wilmer, who is overseeing two other legal actions against the agency involving Valley Creek, another exceptional-value stream that flows through the Great Valley, said it appeared to him that DEP did not obey the law.
"Environmental groups spend a lot of money and a lot of time getting streams to that [exceptional-value] category, and then DEP totally ignores it," he said. About 2 percent of the state's waterways are classified as exceptional value.
Kaufmann said the agency did the best it could to protect these areas. But when a project of this size comes along, which involves as many as 150 stream crossings, "it's tough to get things perfect," he said.
In the case of the Birch Run watershed, the classification upgrade was granted about the time the company filed its application, he said, but the change wasn't published until several months later. The error was brought to DEP's attention by the Green Valleys Association.
"We were unaware that it was an exceptional-value stream," Columbia's Levitt said.
West Vincent resident Jane Gaffer, who leases the field through which the road passed, said she "flipped" when she saw the road and checked to see where it went. She raised the alarm with township officials, who have shut the project down.
"I think it never occurred to anyone that they would go over the stream," she said. "In the past few days I have used more [angry] language than I knew I knew."