FORT BRIDGER, Wyo. — It was a dream come true several years ago when Andy Johnson built a pond on his property to stock fish, let his kids play and provide a spot where his horses could have a drink.
But now that dream has turned into a nightmare. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency accused him of violating the Clean Water Act by damming the middle of Six Mile Creek and polluting the water to build the pond.
The agency is threatening Johnson with a $75,000 per day fine — a penalty often reserved for companies that emit toxic hazards — until he tears it all down.
“I think they’re trying to gain jurisdiction,” Johnson said. “They’re trying to see if they can run over me, and then they will get into everyone’s irrigation ditch and stock ponds throughout not only Wyoming, but the United States."
Johnson’s pond was created with a dam on a nearby creek in Fort Bridger, which he built about five years ago. He got the right permits from Wyoming state agencies.
“I acquired a stock pond reservoir permit,” he said. “They said go ahead and build it. When I was done with the project, I got a hold of them again and did a final on it, and they sent me a paper back saying I’m in good standing, that my pond was exactly exercised as permitted.”
The EPA maintains Johnson broke a law by failing to obtain a federal permit before constructing the pond.
The EPA requires projects on the "waters of the United States" to receive the Army permit, the Associated Press reported. The EPA's logic for deeming the 2-foot-wide, 6-inch-deep section of the Creek a part of the "waters of the United States" goes as follows: Six Mile Creek is a tributary of the Blacks Fork River, which is a tributary of the Green River. Because of Six Mile Creek's relationship to the larger waterways, the EPA claims the creek is subject to the Clean Water Act.
Johnson argues that the creek's waters are dispersed through irrigation canals and never make the nearly 100-mile journey to the Green River.
"The pond doesn't start in a river or end in a river," he said.
Johnson started receiving letters from the EPA two years ago. The agency warned him the pond was potentially violating the Clean Water Act.
In October 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers inspected the pond and concluded he made a dam that resulted in the discharge of "dredged and fill material." He received news of the potential fines in January.
The agency says it's made several attempts to resolve the issue.
“It’s scary,” said Katie Johnson, Andy’s wife. “We have a family, and we have a lot to pay for. We can’t afford that.”
The Johnsons decided to fight the EPA. Andy Johnson says it isn't a dam because no water is actually stored or regulated; it's all free-flowing.
He also said the EPA provided no proof he's harming the environment, so he doesn't feel he did anything wrong.
“I want to stand up for what I believe in, for what I’ve worked for,” he said. “I feel like I’m entitled to that. I pay taxes, I live in this country and I’m going to fight it to the end.”
Andy Johnson is hopeful something can be worked out, but he’s not backing down.
The local welder has been featured in national news stories. Nonprofit law firms are offering to help him fight his case in court. In a three-day period, he received more than 500 phone calls from ranchers, farmers and landowners from all across the country who are incensed about the EPA's decision.
Wyoming’s two U.S. senators have written letters to the EPA on his behalf, but the EPA isn’t backing down. It says it will carefully evaluate any additional information received and all the facts regarding this case.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company