U.S. reaches proposed settlement with Moffat County ranch owner
Settlement with ranch owner is to restore creek and wetlands, and pay damages for trespassing on BLM land
After nearly a six-month battle in federal district court, a Moffat County ranch owner reached a proposed settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Land Management Thursday, March 18, resolving violations of the Clean Water Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
According to the U.S. EPA, a proposed settlement was reached with John Raftopoulos, Diamond Peak Cattle Company LLC and Rancho Greco Limited LLC to resolve the violations involving “unauthorized discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States and trespass on federal public lands in northwest Moffat County, Colorado.”
The United States filed a suit in federal district court on Oct. 22, 2020, alleging that beginning in approximately 2012, and as recently as approximately 2015, Raftopoulous “discharged dredged or filled material into Vermillion Creek and its adjacent wetlands in order to route the creek into a new channel, facilitate agricultural activities and construct a bridge.
The alleged unauthorized activities occurred on private land owned by the defendants and on public land managed by BLM, constituting a trespass in violation of the FLPMA, according to the suit.
The suit also contended that the defendants’ alleged trespass also included unauthorized irrigation, removal of minerals and destruction of numerous cottonwood trees on federal public land. The fill and related activities on BLM lands were conducted without BLM authorization, according to the suit. The defendants’ trespass actions “not only interfered with the public’s right to current enjoyment of federal public lands, but also jeopardized the future health and maintenance of these lands for use by all.”
“Vermillion Creek and its adjacent wetlands are waters of the United States and may not be filled without a CWA Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), which was not obtained. EPA develops and interprets the policy, guidance and environmental criteria the Corps uses in evaluating permit applications,” the suit states.
Under a proposed settlement filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado to resolve the lawsuit, the defendants agreed to the following: pay a $265,000 civil penalty for CWA violations; pay $78,194 in damages and up to $20,000 in future oversight costs for trespass on public lands managed by BLM; remove the unauthorized bridge constructed on public lands; restore approximately 1.5 miles of Vermillion Creek to its location prior to defendants’ unauthorized construction activities; restore the 8.47 acres of wetlands impacted adjacent to the creek; and plant dozens of cottonwood trees to replace those previously removed from federal lands.
Additionally, under the terms of the proposed settlement, the defendants will place a deed restriction on their property to protect the restored creek and wetlands in perpetuity.
“Unauthorized dredging and filling of waters of the U.S. will not be tolerated,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said in a statement regarding the settlement. “With this action, EPA is ensuring the proper restoration of vital creek and wetland resources.”
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Department of Justice will take all necessary steps to protect our precious waters, wetlands, and wildlife,” Acting United States Attorney for the District of Colorado Matt T. Kirsch said in a statement. “Western rivers are a treasure and require protection from all threats, including damage to their vital creeks, streams, and tributaries.”
The proposed settlement will repair important environmental resources damaged by the defendants, as the portions of Vermillion Creek and its adjacent wetlands impacted by the unauthorized activities provided aquatic and wildlife habitat, runoff conveyance and groundwater recharge.
The straightening of Vermillion Creek also contributed to erosion of the bed and banks of the stream and detrimental sediment deposition downstream of the channelization. Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, which provides important habitat for the endangered Colorado pikeminnow, is located at the confluence of Vermillion Creek and the Green River, the EPA contends.
The proposed settlement, which is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval, is available for review at: https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.
For more information on the settlement: https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/john-raftopoulos-et-al-clean-water-act-settlement.
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