MISSOULA — A judge sentenced a Montana man to 18 months in prison Wednesday for violating the federal Clean Water Act as protesters outside the courthouse decried the charges as government overreach.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy also ordered Joseph Robertson, 77, to pay $129,933 in restitution for ponds that he dug on Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest land and on private property near his mining claim in Basin.
The ponds that Robertson dug in 2013 and 2014 discharged dredged and fill materials into a tributary of Cataract Creek and into nearby wetlands, prosecutors said.
He continued to dig after being told repeatedly that it was illegal for him to do so, resulting in nine ponds over more than an acre, prosecutors said.
The stream and wetlands provide support to trout downstream in the Boulder and Jefferson rivers.
Robertson was charged with two counts of unauthorized discharge of pollutants into waters of the U.S. and one count of malicious mischief.
He dug the ponds to protect his property from fire and to water his horses, his federal public defender said in previous court filings. Robertson acknowledged at the time that he didn’t have a permit to do the work but said a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks official had given him permission to dig.
Robertson’s first trial in October ended in a mistrial. He was tried again in April, and a jury found him guilty of all three counts.
A group of protesters outside the courthouse during the sentencing hearing waved American flags and held up signs, one of which said “EPA polluted the Animas River and nobody went to jail.”
The August 2015 spill in Colorado’s Animas River polluted rivers in three Western states with arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
One of the protesters said she believed the government charges were an excuse to remove Robertson from his mining claim.
“Why don’t they just come on to the land and say ‘Hey dude, we’re going to take your land for the mineral rights,’ instead of all of these excuses about permits and stock ponds drainage,” Lynette Ketz told KECI-TV.