Real Estate Developer Sentenced To Jail For Filling Protected Mississippi Wetlands
Gulfport, Miss -- William R. “Rusty” Miller, a real estate developer from Fairhope, Alabama, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola, Jr. to a fifteen-month sentence, with nine months of incarceration and six months home confinement, for the unpermitted filling of wetlands near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in violation of the Clean Water Act, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi. Miller was also ordered to pay a $15,000 fine, $19,246 in victim restitution, and to serve a one-year term of supervised release upon completion of his sentence.
Miller pled guilty in December, 2013, and admitted to having caused the 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. The charging document to which Miller pled guilty identified him as a part-owner of corporations that purchased and intended to develop the land. According to the felony information, in 2001, when Miller and his companies acquired the property, he was informed by a wetland expert that as much as 80 percent of the land was federally protected wetland connected by streams and bayous to the Gulf of Mexico and as such could not be developed without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Wetland permits typically require that developers protect and preserve other wetlands to compensate for those they are permitted to fill and destroy. In spite of additional notice he received of the prohibition against filling and draining wetland without authorization, Miller hired excavation contractors to trench, drain, and fill large portions of the property to lower the water table and thus to destroy the wetland that would otherwise be an impediment to commercial development.
In pleading guilty, defendant Miller acknowledged that he knowingly ditched, drained and filled wetlands at 10 locations on the Hancock County property without having obtained a permit from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Hancock County Land, LLC (“HCL”), the principal owner of the land, previously entered a guilty plea to related charges. HCL pleaded guilty before Senior United States District Judge Walter J. Gex, III, who also imposed the sentence. The corporation agreed and was ordered to pay a total penalty of $1 million (or $500,000 for each of the two counts). The corporation also agreed and was ordered to perform community service by completing wetland restoration and preservation plans ordered by the Court. These require the defendant to replant with appropriate native vegetation the wetland area it excavated and filled, donate approximately 272 acres of the southwest quadrant to the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain to be preserved in perpetuity 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 United States Treasury of $95,000.
"Mississippi's coastal wetlands are an essential state resource,” said U.S. Attorney Davis. “They filter our water, provide us protection from storms, and they are the nurseries for fish and other wildlife. My office has demonstrated many times that we are committed to the protection of our environment. Individuals and companies who illegally develop our wetlands, who chose their own economic interest over the public's interest, will face prosecution and perhaps imprisonment, as the defendant has today."
"Wetlands play a critical role in maintaining a healthy environment," said Maureen O'Mara, Special Agent in Charge of EPA's criminal program in Mississippi. "Wetlands improve water quality, reduce flood damage and provide essential habitat for fish and wildlife. Once they are gone, it's rare to see them restored. Today's sentencing shows that those who illegally destroy these essential natural resources will be prosecuted and held accountable."
The case was prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Jeremy K. Korzenik of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gaines Cleveland of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. U.S. Attorney Davis praised the efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division for its diligent work in the investigation of this matter.
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