WASHINGTON – Imagine putting a pond on your own land and then learning the government might fine you up to 20 million dollars in penalties. Or maybe that you might even end up in jail if you don't have the money.
The Wyoming man who built that pond and faced those massive penalties decided to fight back.
His story is the latest in a series in which CBN News has reported on the out of control system of federal crimes and regulations that could literally make us A Nation of Criminals.
In 2011, Andy Johnson obtained all of the necessary government paperwork before building a stock pond on his eight-acre ranch in Fort Bridger, Wyoming.
At least that's what Johnson was told, according to Jonathan Wood, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation who's been working with Johnson.
"He worked with the state, the local government; got all the sign-offs he needed, and created a pond in his front yard," Wood told CBN News.
Pond Benefited the Environment
And Johnson was careful about how the environment was affected as he created that pond.
"I'm an avid outdoorsman and conservationist," Johnson said. "And since we've built the stock pond, not only does our livestock benefit from it, but we've had eagles, we've had blue heron."
Former federal regulator Ray Kagel Junior examined the pond and insists the pond benefits the environment.
"It had the added benefit of creating quite a bit of nice habitat for fisheries, wildlife, waterfowl, and wetlands in general that were created because of the pond," Kagel stated.
Johnson said it even filtered the water from Six Mile Creek that he was using to supply his pond and made that creek cleaner.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency worry about the sources of any navigable waters in the U.S. and were reportedly concerned about what harm Johnson might have caused to Six Mile Creek.
Permission He Didn't Believe He Needed
And the EPA was supposedly mad that Johnson hadn't asked the agency for permission before he'd built the pond.
So in the dead of a Wyoming winter, the EPA demanded Johnson dismantle the pond in 30 days.
Wood said the agency felt, "He should have asked their permission first. And for having not done so, they demanded he remove the environmentally beneficial pond or pay up to $20 million in potential fines."
"The EPA has come in and threatened to take everything that we've ever known," said Johnson, a professional welder who has no savings even close to $20 million.
From Sitting by the Pond to Sitting in a Cell?
And more than money was on the line.
Wood explained, "Almost every environmental statute includes criminal provisions. So you could go to jail and face criminal fines for things that most of us take for granted on our own property."
The potential fines were up to $37,500 dollars a day…and piled up into the millions because Johnson ended up in a long, hard fight against the feds.
"We suffered many sleepless nights," Johnson said of those years.
Johnson and his lawyers announced in 2015 they were suing the government over its treatment of the Johnson family.
At a news conference announcing that suit, Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen told of visiting the pond and then offering her legal help to Johnson.
"After seeing that pond, seeing what the EPA is doing to this family, it made me so angry that I volunteered the services of my office to this group," Budd-Falen explained.
'It's Just Devastating'
During that same news conference, Johnson said, "It's just devastating to think that our government, the country that we live in, that I work so hard and pay taxes to, is now attacking us."
Cynthia Lummis represented Wyoming in the U.S. Congress during that time and said of the EPA coming after Johnson, "This is federal overreach in the most egregiously ugly way."
Wyoming's Republican senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso wrote to the EPA, "…the Compliance Order reads like a draconian edict of a heavy-handed bureaucracy."
"How much power do we want to give unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats?" Wood asked.
He continued, "I think that the thing people connect within the Andy Johnson story is he's just like all of us. He was doing something that most of us would probably do on our own property without even thinking about. And for doing that, the government threatened to ruin his life and his family's life."
The bureaucrats accused Johnson of violating the Clean Water Act and potentially affecting navigable waters they believed Six Mile Creek fed.
Reading the Map Wrong
"Someone went to the computer on their desk, pulled up GoogleMaps and based just on that accused this man of violating the law," Wood said.
Wyoming attorney Dan Frank of the Frank Law Office pointed out how those bureaucrats made mistakes in reading those computer maps rather than going to the pond and Six Mile Creek.
"Had they ever gone out, they would have found out that it dead-ends in a canal. And that it doesn't ever reach a navigable water of the United States," Frank insisted.
By just going by the maps, they also mistook how the creek flowed.
"They assumed the water was flowing uphill!" Wood explained. "If they had gone out and looked at the property, they would have found the water was flowing the other direction."
Government Doesn't Always Make Sense
"The only thing that makes sense from my experience as a former federal regulator is that the government quite often, in my own personal experience, does things that don't make sense," environmentalist Kagel said.
At that Wyoming news conference announcing their suit against the EPA, lawyer Frank said to the agency, "Your desktop speculation and heavy-handed regulation that results is not going to fly in Wyoming. We're not going to let the EPA bully this hard-working Wyoming family."
Given the mistakes his team uncovered, Johnson felt compelled to fight as long as it took.
"I decided that I was not going to tolerate our government telling us exactly what we can and can't do on our private property," Johnson explained.
Ultimately, Johnson and his legal team won. The EPA backed down and gave up the fight.
'A Welcome Rebuke'
Sen. Barrasso wrote after the government caved, "The EPA should never be able to fine someone millions of dollars for building a pond on their own land. This settlement is a welcome rebuke of an agency that has gone too far."
"The government has incredible leverage over you. They can ruin your life and ruin your family's future if you don't do whatever they say," Wood stated, saying of Johnson, "That's why it was extremely brave of him to fight back and say 'no, you've exceeded your power. I haven't done anything wrong.'"
In the end, the EPA didn't get even one dollar from Johnson. And the pond still exists, still benefiting the environment, which you'd think the Environmental Protection Agency would appreciate.