Lakeland Hires Firm to Check Environmental Issues

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There's a new push to find out about dozens of potential environmental violations in the South Georgia city of Lakeland.

As we first reported last week, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division issued a notice of violation for the city of Lakeland.

That notice lists twenty-three properties where demolition debris may be buried without a permit.

The city council has now unanimously approved the hiring of an engineering firm to assess those sites.

Stevenson & Palmer Engineering will be paid an hourly rate plus expenses not to exceed $15,000 without approval by the city.

There are claims of improperly demolishing, burning and burying dozens of homes.

Georgia's Environmental Protection Division is currently investigating the city of Lakeland in Lanier County, just north of Valdosta for those violations.

"You can see here the old house they buried here had a shingle roof," said former Lakeland Code Enforcement Officer Robert Browning as he looked over a property in the 1200 block of Oak Street.

According to Lanier County records, a home used to sit on the now vacant property.

Browning says it's one of three or four dozen homes improperly destroyed and buried as part of the city's beautification program.

A Georgia Environmental Protection Division or EPD notice of violation says homes were improperly demolished without checking for the cancer causing material asbestos.

Additionally that violation letter says burning and burying of the demolition debris violates Georgia law.

"It's been going on ever since 2006, 2006," said Browning.

Reporter: "And who's behind it in your judgement?"

"Mayor Darsey," said Browning.

Reporter: "Why do you say that?"

"Because he always ordered it," Browning said.

He says an E-P-D representative first started asking questions about two years ago.

Browning claims when Lakeland Mayor Bill Darsey found out he was talking to EPD, the mayor suspended him five days.

Browning also filed a complaint with the Lanier County Sheriff's Office after he says Darsey threatened to have him arrested for going near some of the demolition sites.

In 2011 when the investigation began, Mayor Darsey told an EPD investigator Browning was in charge of the beautification project and supervised the demolition activities.

Browning says that claim is false.

He says he told Darsey the city was improperly demolishing and burying the old homes.

"He ignored my warning signs," said Browning. "He didn't want to listen to me," he said.

Instead, Browning says the demolitions continued.

Ultimately, Browning says the mayor removed him as code enforcement officer.

But it didn't stop him from telling EPD about the sites.

He says they include a property at 8th and Patten where you can plainly see burned debris on the site where there's also a new fire hydrant.

Lanier County records show a home used to be there.

The notice of violation letter from EPD to the city lists 23 properties under investigation.

An EPD spokeswoman says those properties do not comprise the entire list they're investigating.

The EPD letter indicates burial of the demolition debris could cost the city up to $1000 per violation and an additional $500 for each day the violation continues.

The letter also says the open burning of the demolition waste could result in a fine of up to $25,000 dollars per day.

"It's real, real hazardous for people to breathe," said Browning.

In addition to the fines, EPD does have criminal enforcement capabilities.

An EPD spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny a criminal investigation is also taking place.

In response to EPD's letter, Mayor Darsey wrote he's not certain demolition activities took place on all 23 properties listed in the violation notice.

However, he wrote the city is in the process of putting together a corrective action plan for EPD's review.

Darsey wrote part of that plan is getting the necessary consent from property owners to inspect the sites.

"I feel that the city should have to dig these burial sites up and make it right, you know for the environment and also for the people of Lakeland," said Browning.

We made multiple attempts to contact Mayor Darsey for comment without success.

An EPD spokeswoman says one factor in how long it will take the agency to complete its investigation is how willing city leaders are to cooperate.