MISSOULA – Joseph David Robertson, 77, was sentenced today to eighteen months in prison and three years’ supervised release for unauthorized discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States and injury or depredation of United States property. Robertson must also pay $129,933.50 in restitution. U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy issued the sentence and ordered that Robertson be detained immediately. Robertson was convicted in April following a four day federal trial.
Robertson was indicted by a grand jury in May of 2015 as a result of illegal ponds he built on two parcels of land near Basin, Montana, one on Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest land and the other on adjacent private property. Robertson has continually asserted that he owns the property where ponds were built, but he does not. 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.
At trial, the government introduced evidence that in October of 2013, a United States Forest Service (USFS) Special Agent visited the National Forest property to determine whether Robertson had complied with previously issued conditions of probation for misdemeanor violations of USFS regulations. The Agent testified at trial that during the site visit, she observed multiple ponds dug into an existing stream on both USFS and adjacent private property not owned by Robertson.
During a subsequent site visit in November of 2013, Robertson admitted to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and USFS Criminal Special Agents that he had performed the work on the National Forest property using an excavator. State and federal officials visited the site again in May of 2014, and observed that Robertson had done additional work. The site was now approximately 1.2 acres in size, and extended beyond the National Forest property to a private property that he did not own. The work consisted of nine ponds of varying sizes, including some as large as approximately 4900 square feet that were placed directly in the stream and wetlands area. Unconsolidated dredged material from the ponds had been used to create the berms and had been placed in and around the stream and wetlands. Robertson admitted that he had completed the additional work. Additional investigation revealed that Robertson continued to construct ponds on the USFS property after May of 2014, despite being told repeatedly that he had no legal right to do so.
One of the central legal issues at trial was whether the waters polluted by Robertson were “waters of the United States” for purposes of the Clean Water Act. The United States introduced evidence and expert testimony from the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA that the stream and wetlands had a significant nexus to traditional navigable waters, and therefore were “waters of the United States.” Fishery biologists from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the USFS testified that this headwater and wetland complex provided critical support to trout in downstream rivers and fisheries, including the Boulder and Jefferson Rivers.
“Robertson damaged federal land that the government holds in trust for the people of the United States,” said United States Attorney for the District of Montana Mike Cotter. “Clean waterways and healthy riparian ecosystems benefit the people who are the true owners of our public lands. This is not merely an issue of dumping a little dirt into a small stream, it is an illustration of the fact that waterways and riparian ecosystems are interconnected, and this type of destruction has significant environmental consequences downstream. This sentence sends a message that meaningful enforcement of environmental laws serves to protect resources owned by all Americans.”
“Like all Americans, Montana residents expect their local waterways to be clean and free of pollution,” said Jeffrey Martinez, Special Agent in Charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Montana. “This defendant is a repeat violator, with the conduct in this case affecting a Montana waterway, National Forest Service Lands, and private property not belonging to the defendant. The EPA and its law enforcement partners are committed to protecting public health and our nation’s natural resources.”
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Whittaker and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Nelson from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. This case was investigated by multiple state and federal agencies including the United States Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Other agencies that assisted the investigation included Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Jefferson Valley Conservation District.