FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE|
THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2004
TDD (202) 514-1888
GRAND JURY IN JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI, CHARGES THREE INDIVIDUALS AND
TWO CORPORATIONS WITH WETLANDS VIOLATIONS
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi announced today that a federal grand jury in Jackson, Mississippi, has charged three individuals and two corporations with crimes arising from their development of a large tract of wetland in southern Mississippi. In a 41 count indictment made public this morning, Robert Lucas, Jr., of Lucedale, Mississippi; his daughter, Robbie Lucas Wrigley of Ocean Springs, Mississippi; and M. E. Thompson, Jr., of D’Iberville, Mississippi, were charged with having violated the Clean Water Act in having developed wetlands in a 2600 acre subdivision on property in Vancleave, Mississippi, known as Big Hill Acres.
In addition, they and Lucas corporations Big Hill Acres, Inc., and Consolidated Investments, Inc., were also charged with conspiracy and mail fraud for allegedly having sold to hundreds of families home sites in wetlands in spite of numerous warnings from public health officials that they were illegally installing septic systems in saturated soil that were likely to fail and to contaminate the property and the drinking water aquifer below it.
“These defendants endangered the environment by disregarding the law and by ignoring repeated warnings from federal, state, and local officials,” said Tom Sansonetti, the Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “In his Earth Day message, President Bush made it a priority of this Administration to preserve and protect wetlands. This case demonstrates the Department of Justice’s commitment to that goal.”
The indictment alleges that as early as 1996, inspectors from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed Mr. Lucas that substantial portions of the Big Hill Acres property contained wetlands and could not be developed as home sites. The indictment recites a long record of warnings that the Mississippi Department of Health and other regulatory agencies issued to the defendants notifying them of the public health threat they were creating by continuing to install septic systems in saturated soil. The indictment alleges that neither those warnings nor cease and desist orders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restrained Lucas, Wrigley, and engineer M. E. Thompson from improperly installing systems that did not conform to state health department regulations in lots that they continued to develop and sell.
The Big Hill Acres residents have suffered from seasonal flooding and the discharge of sewage from failing septic systems onto the ground around their homes. The development has been the subject of numerous civil lawsuits by tenants against the developers.
“Big Hill Acres residents were sold property on representations that the lots they were buying were good home sites for them and for their families,” said Dunn Lampton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. “Instead, the defendants sold them wetlands and illegal septic systems that failed and discharged sewage into their yards and homes. When such frauds are committed, the perpetrators will be prosecuted.”
David McLeod, EPA’s Resident Agent in Mississippi who investigated the case with the FBI office in Pascagoula, stated, “This case was referred to my office only after years of effort by civil enforcement agencies had failed. The federal government sought criminal charges because the warnings of state and federal regulators were ignored and their orders violated. Where civil enforcement of environmental regulations is ineffective, criminal charges are likely to follow.”
This case was investigated by the FBI and the EPA with the assistance of the Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service and the Mississippi Department of Health. It is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Jeremy Korzenik and Deborah Hillmann of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and by Assistant United States Attorney Peter Barrett of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi.