A solar farm developer and its contractor are set to appeal a decision that left them on the hook for $135.5 million in jury-awarded compensatory and punitive damages stemming from a large project in Georgia that adjacent landowners claim led to erosion runoff on their property.
The jury in the Macon, Ga.-based federal district court awarded the damages on April 28 to Shaun and Aimee Harris, owners of the 1,630-acre H&L Farms in Lumpkin, south of Columbus, from Nashville-based Silicon Ranch Corp. and contractor Infrastructure and Energy Alternatives and its unit, IEA Constructors LLC.
Of the total, Silicon Ranch will pay $25 million in punitive damages, while IEA faces payment of $100 million. The Harrises and their farm were also awarded total compensatory damages of $10 million. For the purposes of compensatory damages, according to court records, the jury found Silicon Ranch to be 30% at fault, IEA 40% and IEA Constructors 30%.
A May 1 order from District Court Judge Clay D. Land says that consistent with the jury verdict, Silicon Ranch and IEA “created, operated and maintained a nuisance at the Lumpkin Solar Facility that caused sedimentation to pollute Plaintiffs’ wetlands, streams, and lake that ... has continued for approximately two years unabated.”
While the court says evidence supports that the nuisance can be abated, it notes that abatement will require “adequate resources, necessary expertise and zealous determination.”
Remediation Plan Outlined
In that order, Land required the plaintiffs to direct Silicon Ranch and IEA how to “expeditiously and with all deliberate speed eliminate the transport of sediment” at the site, including a timeline and details to implement "an amended soil and erosion plan" for the 100-MW solar project, which has operated since 2021.
The order requires that by May 19, Silicon Ranch and IEA must provide a response to that plan, and work with the plaintiffs on a “jointly proposed injunction and order” to be presented to the court by May 26.
Before the Harrises purchased the downstream property, the developer said there would be no impact from the project, according to a statement from their law firm, Butler Prather. “For two years, [Silicon Ranch and IEA] failed to stabilize and vegetate almost a thousand acres they had mass graded—which was breaking the law,” said plaintiffs’ lead counsel James Butler Jr.
In a statement to ENR, IEA says “these are important legal issues that we will address with the court at the proper time, and we look forward to the opportunity to do so. We continue to work diligently to remediate the site.” The firm offered no further comment on the dispute issues.
Indianapolis-based IEA ranks No. 42 on ENR’s latest list of the Top 400 Contractors, reporting $2.1 billion in 2021 revenue, and was acquired last year by specialty energy contractor MasTec Inc. in a deal valued at $1.1 billion, per previous ENR reporting.
Silicon Ranch told pv magazine USA that it regrets the unintentional damage to the property, doesn't believe the verdict is supported by the facts of the case and plans to appeal the decision.
According to Silicon Ranch, the Lumpkin Solar Farm opened for commercial operation in December 2021, with 300,000 modules and an 850-acre footprint. It is part of a portfolio of projects to provide solar power to the Walton Membership Corp, as part of that utility’s agreement to supply 100% renewable energy to a Meta data center in Newton County, Ga.
Engineering firm Westwood Professional Services, which court filings said provided civil engineering construction plans for the project, was also named in the suit, with the Harrises claiming the firm was professionally negligent.
But a May 3 order from Land says the jury found in favor of Westwood, with the firm able to recover its costs from the plaintiffs.
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