Major Wetlands Criminal Prosecution Results In Defendants Receiving Jail Sentences, Paying Restitution

In what federal officials are calling one of the most significant wetlands criminal enforcement prosecutions in U.S. history, three people and two affiliated corporations --Big Hill Acres Inc., and Consolidated Investments Inc. -- were sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, the Department of Justice and EPA announced on Dec. 6.

Robert Lucas Jr. was sentenced to nine years in prison followed by three years of supervised release, and will pay a $15,000 fine. His daughter Robbie Lucas Wrigley was sentenced to 87 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release, and also is required to pay a $15,000 fine. M.E. Thompson Jr. also was sentenced to 87 months in prison followed by three years supervised release, and will pay a $15,000.

Big Hill Acres Inc. was fined $4.8 million and sentenced to five years probation. Consolidated Investments Inc. was sentenced to five years probation and is required to pay a $500,000 fine.

"The defendants in this case defrauded their customers and destroyed wetlands that are critical to the Gulf Coast ecosystem," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This landmark criminal case sends a strong message that corporations and individuals who commit flagrant violations of our environmental laws will be prosecuted vigorously and will face the possibility of lengthy prison sentences."

All five defendants were convicted after trial earlier this year of Clean Water Act violations for illegally filling hundreds of acres of wetlands during the development of a 2,600 acre subdivision on property in Vancleave, Miss., known as Big Hill Acres. All of the defendants also were convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud for then selling hundreds of home sites on the filled-in wetlands despite warnings from public health officials that they were illegally installing septic systems in saturated soil that would contaminate the property.

"The defendants destroyed valuable wetlands and victimized the residents of Big Hill Acres, who ended up with polluted homes and yards with leaking sewage," said Granta Y. Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "This sentence sends a convincing message that those who knowingly violate environmental laws and place the public health and welfare at risk will pay a very heavy price."

Robert Lucas and the other defendants developed Big Hill Acres from 1994 through 1999. Beginning in 1996, inspectors from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed Lucas that substantial portions of the property contained wetlands and could not be developed as home sites. The Mississippi Department of Health and other regulatory agencies told the defendants that they were creating a public health threat by continuing to install septic systems in saturated soil that could not support them properly. Despite warnings and cease and desist orders from the Corps and the EPA, Lucas and his associates continued to improperly install systems that did not conform to state health department regulations in lots that they continued to develop and sell.

Most of the land was sold to low and/or fixed-income families. While selling the property, Lucas and several other defendants fraudulently told prospective buyers that the property was completely habitable. More than 600 families moved into Big Hill Acres, within several years, a large number of the septic systems failed, causing raw sewage to seep up from the ground and flow across the development.

A number of the homes in Big Hill Acres also suffered from slow drainage; brown, foul-smelling water backing up into bathrooms, kitchens, laundries and sinkholes; and standing water on the lots with debris rising to the surface.

On June 10, 2004, a grand jury in the Southern District of Mississippi charged Lucas and his associates with a total of 41 Clean Water Act and U.S. criminal code violations in connection with their development of the property. On Feb. 25, following a two month-long trial, a petit jury in Gulfport, Miss., returned guilty verdicts against all the defendants on all of the Clean Water Act, conspiracy and mail fraud counts.

Additional information about wetlands enforcement can be found at http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/facts/fact15.html.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi: http://www.mssd.uscourts.gov

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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