A Wyoming rancher is claiming a partial victory for himself and property owners across the country after settling a lawsuit with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Johnson v. EPA. Rancher Andy Johnson was facing $20 million in fines from the EPA for building a pond on his property to water his cattle. Johnson has agreed in the settlement to plant willow trees and temporarily limit his cattle’s access to the pond in what his attorneys described as a “win for the Johnson family and a win for the environment.” Also under the terms of the agreement, the federal government won't pursue any further enforcement actions based on the pond's construction.
Johnson had racked up more than $20 million in fines while fighting the EPA’s order. Under the terms of the settlement, however, the Johnson family will pay no fines. Andy Johnson and family were represented by Attorney Jonathan Wood of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest nonprofit law firm that represents citizens facing government over-reach. Wood said in a statement yesterday, “They will not lose their property. They will not have to agree to federal jurisdiction or a federal permit, which would have surely entailed onerous conditions.” Wood added, “In effect, the government will treat the pond as an exempt stock pond, in exchange for Andy further improving on the environmental benefits he has already created.”
The EPA originally ordered Johnson in January 2014 to remove the pond on his property or face fines that accumulated at the rate of $37,500 per day. The agency had described the pond as being in violation of the Clean Water Act, even though stock ponds are exempt from the federal law. Johnson had obtained the necessary state and local permits.
Johnson runs a small 8-acre horse and cattle ranch in Fort Bridger, Wyoming. He called the settlement “a huge victory for us as well as private property owners across the country.”
“This is a victory for common sense and the environment, and it brings an end to all the uncertainty and fear that the Johnson family faced,” said Wood. Referring to the EPA order that has now been allayed, Wood said “You can imagine how terrifying it must be to receive such an order.” The Johnson family was thrown into tumult, said Wood. Questions racked Johnson, said Wood. “In an instant, Andy Johnson's future, and that of his children, was thrown into turmoil. Would he be prosecuted? Would he be assessed large fines that, being an ordinary person, would cause his family's financial ruin? Would the government essentially take control over his property, which was also his home?”
After wrangling for nearly two years to explain he had not violated the Clean Water Act, Johnson took recourse to court and sought representation by PLF and local attorneys. They successfully argued that Johnson’s stock pond was exempt from the Act and, under Supreme Court precedent, the federal government can regulate waters only if they have a "significant nexus" to navigable waters. In this case, Johnson's pond drains to a manmade irrigation ditch, where the water is used for agriculture.
The settlement avoided further litigation, said the statement from PLF, that could have taken decades. While Johnson wanted to litigate the case and obtain a clear victory for all property owners at odds with bureaucrats, he had to take “the proverbial deal that was too good to refuse,” said the PLF statement. Johnson did not want to live with decades of uncertainty while litigation carried on.