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Landlord cited for violating Clean Water Act


(May 27) Holly Stover's corner apartment at the Meadow View Apartments is closest to the sewage treatment plant that serves the Clarksburg development.

The treatment facility sits behind a chain-link fence 20 yards from Stover's front door. The smell of sewage wafts across her front porch.

"You can't even open your windows sometimes it stinks so bad," she said. "You can smell it clear down on (U.S.) Route 19."

Route 19 is situated over the hill from Stover's apartment. Across the road is the West Fork River, where federal prosecutors say Stover's landlord dumped sewage from the plant for the last four years.

Stover said she wasn't surprised to hear that her landlord, James Chaplin, was indicted by a federal grand jury this month on 18 counts of violating the Clean Water Act. She said she had seen Department of Environmental Protection inspectors at the plant.

Federal prosecutors allege that Chaplin, who owns an Ohio County-based real estate company, dumped sewage into rivers and creeks in Harrison, Taylor, Monongalia, Wetzel and Marshall counties and embezzled money from several apartment complexes.

Chaplin did not return a phone call left at his office Friday and documents filed in federal court do not list an attorney representing Chaplin.

Chaplin's real estate company built low income housing in rural areas with financing through the Multi Family Housing Program, which is run by the federal Department of Agriculture, prosecutors said. The program requires the developer to provide sewage service if public sewage is not available.

In addition to Meadow View, Chaplin owns the Boothsville Apartments in Taylor County, Lockwood Apartments in Morgantown and apartments in Moundsville and Smithfield. Each is equipped with an independent sewage plant.

Prosecutors and investigators are keeping many of the facts of this case Ñ which is one of the most environmentally significant cases locally in recent memory Ñ under wraps.

"We can't really go beyond the four corners of the indictment," said Fawn Thomas, with the United States Attorney's office in Wheeling.

It remains uncertain how investigators learned of the alleged violations, how much sewage was supposedly dumped into the water, the impact of the alleged violations or how prosecutors tend to prove that Chaplin "failed to operate and maintain" the plants.

Mike Zeto, the chief inspector for environmental enforcement, said the sewage plants "could work," but "to his knowledge" no one has stepped in to make sure the plants are run correctly.

No clean up of the sewage is possible, he said. In fact, some polluting of the water is legal with a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit. The permit allows someone to put a level of pollutants into the water that will not harm the water or aquatic life, Zeto said.

Chaplin allegedly dumped more sewage into the water than his permit allowed, according to the indictment.

"Eventually, it'll take care of itself," Zeto said. "Once you enter into other waterways, it'll get to a level that doesn't pose any risk."

But, the bacteria in sewage could cause stomach viruses if the water is ingested. High levels of the bacteria could indicate the presence of other, more harmful elements, he said.

Zeto would not say what levels of the bacteria were allegedly released or what risk it posed. He also would not say if his office initiated the investigation into Chaplin.

Officials at the Department of Agriculture's office in Morgantown also would not say if they started the probe. Officials there did say that the apartments, which Chaplin still owns, will be maintained if he is convicted.

"We could actually end up owning these projects," said Diane Crysler, the head of the office. "We would make management arrangements until the liquidation process goes through. Someone could buy it totally without the program or they could get assistance."

Chaplin built and has owned the apartments since the 1980s, when federal funding for the program was more at its peak, said Sue Snodgrass, the coordinator of the Multi Family Housing Program.

Chaplin had to go through a detailed application process to enter the program, Snodgrass said. He had to show that he had good credit and had experience dealing with real estate and development.

Snodgrass said her office oversees the projects, conducting audits and overlooking the budgets.

"We make sure that the government's money is being spent the way it's supposed to be spent," she said.

In addition to the environmental violations, prosecutors say Chaplin misused funds from the apartments in Taylor and Wetzel counties and embezzled $30,000 from Meadow View.

If convicted on all counts, Chaplin could face 60 years in prison and $4.5 million in fines.