It sounds like something out of a John Grisham best-seller. But the Big Hill Acres story isn't fiction, and neither is its cast of characters, including a now prominent federal environmental official.
Go back to the mid-'90s. Robert Lucas Jr., a developer in Grisham's native state of Mississippi, subdivides 2,600 acres near the Gulf Coast and starts selling off lots to lower-income residents for mobile homes.
However, the Big Hill Acres subdivision also happens to contain roughly 1,200 acres of federally protected wetlands, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tells Lucas in 1996. Undeterred, Lucas begins to illegally drain or fill those wetlands without a permit. He also hires an unscrupulous engineer, M.E. Thompson Jr., who is willing to lie and certify that septic tanks on the property have been installed properly, even though he knows that many of the septic units are sitting in wetlands and are almost guaranteed to fail.
Hundreds of lots are sold, families move their mobile homes onto the property and connect them to septic tanks, and the nightmares begin.
With every major rainfall, homes are flooded; hundreds of gallons of raw sewage flow up out of toilets and run unchecked through the subdivision and into nearby streams. Families who had invested meager life savings in their lot abandon the property.
By 1997, when the Health Department raises a ruckus about sanitation problems caused by faulty septic systems, local county commissioners respond — by attacking the Health Department. According to later court testimony, one commissioner told a Health Department staffer that the department "would either play ball with M.E. Thompson or [the commissioner] would cut the Health Department budget." They didn't play ball; the budget was cut drastically.
By 2000, state and federal regulators get involved. Lucas then hires lawyer Jimmy Palmer, who had just retired as head of Mississippi's Department of Environmental Quality, to make the problem go away.
And when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers finally demand that Lucas stop selling lots in the development, he agrees. Then he goes right on selling wetlands property to unsuspecting buyers.
Finally, the EPA takes the rare step of referring the case for criminal prosecution, something it does only in the most egregious of cases. Lucas, his daughter Robbie Lucas Wrigley, and Thompson are indicted on 22 counts of violating the Clean Water Act, 18 counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy.
Palmer, the former head of Mississippi's environmental protection agency, is subpoenaed to testify in the case this spring. In front of the jury, he recalls believing that the federal EPA had been heavy-handed in its dealings with Lucas, that the federal agency had acted unethically and that it had been inflammatory in how it had communicated with Big Hill Acres residents. He testified about a letter he had written to EPA officials accusing them of a crusade to destroy Big Hill Acres.
Two things make that testimony interesting:
First, the jury didn't buy it. In less than a day of deliberations, it convicted Lucas and his fellow defendants on all 41 counts. They now face up to 30 years in federal prison, and given how cavalierly they flouted the law, they deserve it.
And Palmer, the man who had described the EPA's enforcement actions against Lucas as heavy-handed, unethical and inflammatory?
Today, he serves as head of EPA's Region 4, based here in Atlanta, overseeing enforcement of environmental laws for eight southeastern states. He was appointed in October 2001 by President Bush.
In that job — one of 10 regional administrators around the country — Palmer now helps to decide which cases to pursue and prosecute, and on occasion even takes the lead in settlement negotiations with polluters and other violators of environmental law. Not surprisingly, Region 4 staff members are reportedly held under tight rein, discouraged from aggressively pursuing violators.
Unfortunately, Palmer did not respond to an interview request, turning down a chance to explain how he might see things differently now that he's running the agency he once criticized so harshly.
But it all leads you to wonder whether he sees his job as protecting the environment, or protecting polluters.
© 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution