Andy Johnson is the newest poster boy for anti-EPA sentiment.
The Uinta County man’s name went viral last week after the Environmental Protection Agency issued an administrative order demanding he dismantle a pond he built on his property in 2011.
The EPA claims Johnson violated the Clean Water Act by damming the middle of Six Mile Creek and polluting the water to build the pond. The agency is threatening Johnson with a $75,000 per-day fine -- a penalty often reserved for companies that emit toxic hazards.
The monetary threats haven’t shaken Johnson. He’s using the moment as a rallying cry.
He claims the EPA is using the Clean Water Act as a “political football” to regulate private landowners.
“It’s not about a pond,” he said. “It’s about national laws.”
The EPA maintains Johnson broke a law by failing to obtain a federal permit before constructing the pond. The agency says it's made several attempts to resolve the issue.
Johnson, a local welder, has been featured in national news stories. Nonprofit law firms are offering to help him fight his case in court. In a three-day period, he received more than 500 phone calls from ranchers, farmers and landowners from all across the country who are incensed about the EPA’s decision.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about everybody across America. We got people in an uproar from one end of the country to the other.”
Wyoming Republican Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso joined with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to partake in the outcry. The trio issued a letter to the EPA on Wednesday, asking the agency to lift the order.
The senators slammed the EPA move as a “draconian edict of a heavy handed bureaucracy.”
“The compliance order’s terms are crushing for an individual landowner,” the letter reads. “… The EPA appears more interested in intimidating and bankrupting Mr. Johnson than it does in working cooperatively with him.”
Not much was thriving in Johnson’s section of Six Mile Creek before he built the pond.
Today, his horses and livestock use the pond for drinking water. He often sees bald eagles, minks and ducks foraging on the banks. There’s also a flourishing population of brown trout, he said.
Johnson is hoping the ruckus will fade away so he can sponsor a youth fishing day at the pond.
“This pond has an environmental benefit on the community,” he said.
Before he began construction, Johnson thought he was playing by the rules.
He applied for a permit with the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. The state approved his initial construction plans and issued a permit. After construction, the state said he was in good standing and “exercised” construction as permitted.
What Johnson didn’t know was that he needed to file a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the pond.
The EPA requires projects on the “waters of the United States” to receive the Army permit. The EPA’s logic for deeming the two-foot wide and six-inch deep section of the Creek a part of the “waters of the United States” goes as follows: Six Mile Creek is a tributary of the Blacks Fork River, which is a tributary of the Green River. Because of Six Mile Creek’s relationship to the larger waterways, the EPA claims the creek is subject to the Clean Water Act.
Johnson argues that the creek’s waters are dispersed through irrigation canals and never make the nearly 100-mile journey to the Green River, he said.
“The pond doesn’t start in a river or end in a river,” he said.
Johnson started receiving letters from the EPA two years ago. They warned him the pond was potentially violating the Clean Water Act.
In October 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers inspected the pond and concluded he made a dam that resulted in the discharge of “dredged and fill material.” He received news of the potential fines in January.
Johnson describes the pond-making process like this: He dug a hole, lined the pond with large rocks and put a drain at the bottom. While he constructed the pond, the water flowed through the drain.
“It never stopped flowing,” he said.
When he was done building the pond, he closed the valve of the drain. Now the water flows out of the pond like a spillway, he said.
The EPA has received a backlash from the news about Johnson’s pond. He hasn’t heard anything from the agency since his story went national.
“The EPA’s goal in all of these cases is to work with landowners to secure compliance with the Clean Water Act,” the agency said Monday. “Following the Corps’ determination in 2012, EPA made several attempts to discuss and resolve these issues with Mr. Johnson. EPA issued a compliance order in January only after several failed attempts to do so. We also made Mr. Johnson aware of the opportunity to seek judicial review of the order at that time.”
Johnson is eligible to legally review the EPA decision and is likely to do so. Before receiving offers to help him litigate his case, Johnson said he would go “bankrupt” fighting the agency.
“They are treating me as if I am guilty until I am proven innocent,” he said.