Mississippi-based Hancock County Land LLC (HCL) pleaded guilty today to the unpermitted filling of wetlands near Bay St. Louis, Miss., and agreed to pay a $1 million fine and take remedial measures for two felony violations of the Clean Water Act, announced Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Gregory K. Davis. HCL admitted causing the unauthorized excavation and filling of wetlands on a 1,710 acre parcel of undeveloped property in Hancock County, west of the intersection of Route 603 and Interstate 10.
According to the charges filed in federal court in Jackson, Miss., when HCL purchased the property, it had been informed by a wetland expert that as much as 80 percent of its land was federally protected wetland connected by streams and bayous to the Gulf of Mexico and, therefore, that the property could not be developed without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Such permits typically require that developers protect and preserve other wetlands to compensate for those they are permitted to fill and destroy.
The charges allege that in spite of additional notice of the prohibition against filling and draining wetlands without authorization, HCL, principally through its minority owner /general contractor, hired an excavation contractor to trench, drain and fill large portions of the property to lower the water table and thus to destroy the wetland that would otherwise have been an impediment to commercial development. In pleading guilty, HCL admitted that it knowingly ditched, drained and filled wetlands at multiple locations on the Hancock County property without having obtained a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers as required under the Clean Water Act.
It is a felony under the Clean Water Act for any person knowingly to discharge pollutants into waters of the United States, including wetlands, without a permit. A corporation convicted of this offense is subject to a penalty of not more than $500,000 per count.
HCL agreed and was ordered to pay to the federal government a total penalty of $1 million ($500,000 for each of the two counts). HCL also agreed and was ordered by the court to restore and preserve the damaged wetlands as provided in separate agreements HCL reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a citizen group, the Gulf Restoration Network. The agreements require HCL to re-grade and then re-plant, with appropriate native vegetation, the wetland area it excavated and filled and donate approximately 272 acres of the southwest quadrant of its property to the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain to be preserved in perpetuity. HCL is also required to fund its management and maintenance, to pay $100,000 toward the litigation costs of the Gulf Restoration Network, and to pay a civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury of $95,000.
HCL entered its plea before senior U.S. District Judge Walter J. Gex III.
"The defendant deliberately destroyed wetlands that are protected by the law," said Maureen O'Mara, Special Agent in Charge of EPA's criminal enforcement program in Mississippi. "This is a great example of local, state, and federal agencies working together to hold companies accountable for putting profit above the requirements of the law."
U.S. Attorney Davis praised the efforts of the EPA’s Office of Criminal Investigation for its diligent work in the investigation of this matter. Senior Trial Attorney Jeremy F. Korzenik of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gaines Cleveland are the prosecutors in charge of the case.
Real estate developer and HCL minority owner, William R. Miller, was charged in November 2012 with Clean Water Act violations related to the same unauthorized excavation and filling of wetlands near Bay St. Louis. That case is expected to be scheduled for trial over the next few months.