As The Gazette's editorial board commits to veteran advocacy, we ask President Donald Trump to commute the prison sentence of Joseph David Robertson. It's a case of environmental regulation gone mad.
Robertson came to our attention after the EPA's inspector general said he would not pursue charges or penalties in conjunction with his agency's massive spill of toxins from the Gold King Mine into Colorado's Animas and San Juan rivers. We wondered what the EPA did when common citizens polluted water.
We found the EPA is unmerciful to the general public. It imprisons citizens for environmental mishaps many times smaller than the EPA's 3 million gallons of mine waste that directly tainted rivers and wells, harmed livestock operations and closed tourism businesses.
The EPA's decision to give itself a pass was an unconscionable double standard. The agency can pollute water with no consequence, while average citizens rot in prison for doing the same.
We gave the example of Robertson, a disabled Navy veteran who had been sentenced to 18 months confinement because his stock ponds discharged "fill material" into a Montana tributary stream. In addition to prison, Robertson was ordered to pay a $130,00 fine. He will be almost 80 when he begins three years of post-prison supervised parole. His health is not good.
The Department of Veterans Affairs neglects Americans such as Robertson, while the EPA has no compunction locking them up.
"He may not survive long enough to see a higher federal court repudiate his unjust prosecution under an unconstitutional regulatory edict," wrote former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo in a recent edition of The Hill. Like us, Tancredo wants Trump to commute Robertson's sentence.
A grand jury indicted Robertson in 2015 for violations of the Waters of the United States rule enacted at the insistence of then-President Barack Obama. The law gave the EPA authority over every body of water it could stumble upon, including puddles that might drain into navigable waterways. It authorized the EPA to regulate almost any piece of land that gets wet.
Robertson had created a few small ponds to water cattle and help him and his rural neighbors protect against wildfires. To convict him, the government had to prove the ponds might introduce contamination into a navigable river 60 miles away.
The first trial resulted in a hung jury. So the government moved the case to Missoula, a college town known for environmental activism. That worked. Federal prosecutors wanted to send a message.
"This verdict sends a message that the United States will not stand by and allow streams and wetlands of the United States to be polluted," said Mike Cotter, U.S. attorney for the District of Montana.
Hear that message, and just try to forget the unpunished Gold King fiasco.
One month and a day after taking office, President Trump signed an executive order instructing the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to "review and reconsider" the Waters of the United States rule. He had promised to eliminate it in a quest to reduce regulations that hurt Americans.
David Robertson served his country. He's in prison because the EPA used unfettered authority to send a message. President Trump, release this American veteran. Return him to his wife and home to live out his life in dignity.
REPRINTED FROM THE COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE