EPA Must Pay Harassed Mill Owner

Published October 1, 2000

A federal judge has invoked a rarely used law to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay damages to a Massachusetts mill owner the agency harassed and pursued an investigation against, despite a lack of evidence.

On August 1, U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton in Boston ordered the EPA to pay $68,726 to Riverdale Mills, a firm that builds and markets wire mesh for use in lobster traps.

“The American system worked today,” said Jamy Buchanan, a lawyer who assisted with the complaint of James Knott, owner of the mill. “The courts pointed the finger back at the real criminals–the people hiding behind a government agency misusing their considerable power.”

The judge said EPA withheld evidence that would have cleared Knott.

“The court is also troubled by the government’s unnecessary harassment of defendants and their employees” during a search of the firm’s premises in 1997, Gorton wrote.

“At that time, a virtual ‘SWAT team’ consisting of 21 EPA law enforcement officers and agents, many of whom were armed, stormed the facility to conduct pH samplings. They vigorously interrogated and videotaped employees, causing them great distress,” the judge said.

Knott was indicted in 1998 for violations of the Clean Water Act. The charges were dropped in 1999 after government prosecutors discovered information that would have cleared Riverdale Mills of charges was withheld by EPA in a search warrant application.

The Department of Justice said the three-year-old law used to levy penalties against EPA is rarely invoked. It allows defendants improperly targeted by federal agencies to seek legal compensation from the government if the criminal prosecution was “frivolous, in bad faith, or vexatious.” Known as the “Hyde Amendment” after Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, the law has been used successfully only seven times nationwide, according to Environment News Service.