Kernen Construction Co. on Glendale Drive between Blue Lake and McKinleyville. | Google Street View


A U.S. District Court judge on Sunday ordered a Humboldt County construction company to pay more than $2 million in civil penalties for violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing toxic pollutants to discharge into a tributary of the Mad River.

Kernen Construction Co., whose services include excavating, paving, concrete and metal fabrication and more, was ordered to pay $2,087,750 as a result of a civil enforcement action brought by Arcata nonprofit Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs).

According to the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, Kernen founders and executives Scott Farley and Kurt Kernen admitted liability on all claims asserted in the complaint. Namely, CATs accused the company of allowing stormwater laden with pollutants to flow into Hall Creek, a salmon-bearing stream that flows into the Mad River. 

The company’s facility at 2350 Glendale Drive, between Blue Lake and McKinleyville, is used to manufacture and store rock aggregate products. It was previously used to store roofing shingles, scrap metal, soil and organic debris. When it rained in the area, the ruling states, the stormwater picked up pollutants such as lead, copper, aluminum, pentachlorophenol and zinc — all of which are harmful to animals and humans. Due to insufficient stormwater controls, the pollutant-laden water was allowed to flow into the adjacent waterway.

In a press release issued Wednesday, CATs Executive Director Patty Clary noted that Hall Creek has been listed as a critical habitat for salmon.

“That a small and endangered population of salmon still hangs on in Hall Creek is something to treasure and protect from toxic pollutants,” Clary said in the release. “This $2 million penalty should send the message that whether a stream supports fish or provides drinking water or other benefit, it is a public resource, not a dumping ground for industries looking to enhance their bottom line.”

This isn’t the first time CATs has won a court victory over Kernen Construction. In 2016 the nonprofit brought claims for similar violations of the Clean Water Act at the Glendale Drive facility, from 2011 through 2017. The parties entered into a settlement agreement that required the defendants to take certain steps to prevent further violations, according to the judge’s ruling. That agreement expired on Feb. 1, 2020.

Bill Verick, the attorney for CATs in the latest action, was quoted in Wednesday’s press release, saying, “This is the second go-round with this company and the second time they ignored their duty to come up with better pollution control when they exceeded EPA benchmarks. Hopefully, a $2 million fine will get their attention. If not, we’ll be back for a third go-round.”

In addition to the hefty civil penalties, CATs is seeking injunctive relief, asking the court to prevent Kernen Construction from discharging stormwater until the company comes into compliance, and to instead transport it for treatment and disposal at the McKinleyville Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Judge Gonzales Rogers ordered the company to meet and confer with CATs “to determine whether the parties can reach an agreement as to appropriate injunctive relief here… .” The two parties have been ordered to file a joint statement within 30 days describing the results of their negotiations and outlining next steps.

A voicemail left for Farley and Kernen Monday morning was not returned by the time this post went up. You can read the full ruling below.


DOCUMENT: Order Regarding Civil Penalties