Battelle fined for destroying bird nests, eggs

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 29, 2012 

Battelle has agreed to pay a fine of $96,800 after hundreds of bank swallow nests and thousands of eggs were destroyed during construction of a new laboratory in Richland.

The money will go to the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for purchasing or restoring shrub-steppe habitat in the Mid-Columbia, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Washington.

Destroying the nests and eggs during the construction of the new Physical Sciences Facility for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory was a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Battelle operates the national lab in Richland for the Department of Energy.

The problem occurred after topsoil from the construction site was piled up in 2007 for later use in landscaping. In 2009, a subcontractor on the project removed some of the topsoil from the pile, creating a vertical space ideal for the nesting burrows dug by bank swallows.

On June 21, 2010, four college interns noticed the bank swallow nesting colony in the pile of topsoil. One of the interns emailed an electronic link to a senior research scientist, but the email did not say where the nesting colony was or indicate there was any threat, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Starting June 30, 2010, more soil was removed from the pile for landscaping. On July 7, 2010, one of the interns saw a backhoe parked near the pile and tried without success to reach the senior research scientist who had been sent the link to the pictures earlier.

The next day the intern notified a biologist at the lab, and Battelle told subcontractors to stop all work near the topsoil pile, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

But by that time, 484 bank swallow nests and 3,388 bank swallow eggs had been destroyed, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

When Battelle officials became aware of the problem, they not only stopped work, but also notified U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said Julie Erickson, deputy manager of DOE's Pacific Northwest Site Office.

DOE also is encouraged that the fine will go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to protect habitat, she said.

"Where corporations, especially those which depend largely on taxpayer dollars, commit criminal violations they must accept responsibility for their actions and attempt to make things right," said Michael Ormsby, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, in a statement.

"We are pleased that Battelle has chosen to do just that in this case," he said.

Battelle signed a nonprosecution agreement with the Department of Justice that limits what it can say without prior approval from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

But it has taken several steps to prevent another similar problem from occurring, according to the agreement.

It has added language to the Contractor Environment, Safety and Health Manual that makes biological review mandatory before actions that could harm plants and animals. It also has taken steps to improve internal communication and require periodic reviews of changing site conditions.

It has distributed information to staff on the presence and activities of migratory birds on the PNNL campus over the two years since the incident. The information has included who to contact if potentially protected species are discovered.

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