A 77-year old Montana resident is facing 15 years in federal prison for building ponds on and hear his own property, charged by the federal government for discharging dredged and fill material.
The man, disabled veteran Joseph Robertson, also could be fined around $750,000.
“I’m facing 15 years and three-quarters of a million in fines,” Robertson told the Billings Gazette. “What they’re doing to me, the feds, they shouldn’t have the ability to.”
Robertson is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on July 20, charged with polluting “waters of the United States” and for violating the Clean Water Act.
He says he built the ponds — nine total — to water his horses and protect his property from fire.
The EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers contend Robertson violated the Act by building the ponds, which sit near a wetland. The government argues that the water should be regulated because it flows into Cataract Creek, and then into the Boulder River, and finally into the Jefferson River, which is about 60 miles away from his property.
A federal jury, upon hearing from EPA and Corps experts, found Robertson guilty on April 7, the newspaper reported.
“This verdict sends a message that the United States will not stand by and allow streams and wetlands of the United States to be polluted, or National Forest lands to be injured,” Mike Cotter, the US Attorney for the District of Montana, said.
Robertson’s land borders a national forest.
“The ponds resulted in the discharge of dredged and fill material into a tributary stream and adjacent wetlands and caused widespread damage to both properties,” a press release from the US attorney’s office says.
Robertson’s troubles began in 2013, when special agents from the EPA and the US Forest Service visited his property.
What Is EPA’s Motive?
The agents told Robertson he had no legal right to build the ponds. They also said he didn’t own the land. When he ignored them, he was charged with polluting headwaters and wetlands.
The jury heard from experts on both sides.
“In our opinion, there were no measurable or quantitative adverse impacts to the aquatic ecosystem,” Ray Kagel Jr., a former wetlands regulator for the Corps of Engineer, said on Robertson’s behalf. Kagel spent 12 years with the Corps and now runs Kagel Environmental in Rigby, Idaho. Kagel also worked as a project manager for the EPA.
Kagel believes the EPA and the US attorney are simply trying to make an example of Robertson to justify their enforcement efforts.
“It’s kind of like a feather in the cap showing, ‘Wow, what a great job we are doing as an agency based on all these enforcement actions we’ve taken,’” Kagel said, according to The Gazette.
Kagel contends that Robertson did not violate the act because water flows underground for a mile from the ponds to Cataract Creek.
Robertson is only one of a number of property owners who have faced fines and charges because of the Clean Water Act. Beaver, Wyoming, rancher Andy Johnson faced up to $16 million in fines for building a stock pond without a permit. The EPA eventually settled with Johnson, allowing to keep his pond.
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