Case of John Pozsgai Essay

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John Postal and the environmental protection agency and army corps

John Pozsgai vs. The EPA

Google the name 'John Pozsgai' and you will immediately summon up a series of articles from very divergent sources, some of which laud Pozsgai as a hero, others of which call him as a villain. Conservative sources like The Wall Street Journal and the online magazine Reason laud him while others are far more suspicious of the idea that Pozsgai is a victim of the modern environmentalist movement. The evidence is overwhelming that despite numerous warnings that his actions were unwarranted and illegal, Pozsgai persisted in his actions. While it is true that his sentence may have been extremely harsh and that the government may have been able to have gone about mitigating the damage and dealing with Pozsgai in a more sensitive manner before things got out-of-hand, that does not excuse his actions.

The facts are as follows: John Pozsgai was "sentenced to three years in prison and fined $202,000 for violating the wetlands provisions of the federal Clean Water Act…the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld the sentence" (Kilpatrick 1990). The case began in October 1986 when Pozsgai, who owned a diesel truck-repair business in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, decided to expand his business by purchasing 14 acres of nearby land. According Douglas Mason, "the real estate broker representing the owner" of the land, Pozsgai was warned that the area was "probably was a protected wetland that could not be developed" under EPA regulations (Kilpatrick 1990). The land had been abandoned and was filled with old tires and other debris. Three independent engineering firms confirmed that the area was a wetland. Rather than attempting to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers as was required under law, Pozsgai cleaned up the property and began to fill the area. An inspector who visited the site from the Corps warned him not to do so but Pozsgai continued to fill and eventually bought the property despite its designation as wetlands.

Pozsgai continued to fill and continued to receive notices from the Corps warning him to cease and desist in the practice. The EPA and the Corps both issued warnings. Not only did Pozsgai defy these orders he never even attempted to apply for a permit. "The violations continued, and meanwhile adjoining properties began to suffer flood waters. The natural drainage into the Pennsylvania Canal had been disturbed" (Kilpatrick 1990). This was later cited as evidence that Pozsgai's actions had indeed harmed the area, despite his insistence to the contrary. The Department of Justice obtained a court order in 1988 to stop Pozsgai. When this failed, "an indignant neighbor, Joan Sevits, allowed EPA agents to install video equipment in her home. Over the next 10 days the camera documented 32 violations of the order. Chief District Judge John P. Fullam imposed a fine of $5,000 for contempt of court" (Kilpatrick 1990). Pozsgai was convicted by a jury trial of his peers and mounted a three-pronged defense. "He challenged the Clean Water Act as an unconstitutional abridgment of his property rights; he complained on appeal of ineffective counsel; he sought to show that the property was not a wetlands after all" (Kilpatrick 1990). Supreme Court declined to review the case, perhaps because of this rather confused and unfocused defense (Kilpatrick 1990).

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial supporting Pozsgai called him a "flabbergasted truck mechanic" and "as a hardworking immigrant who sought only to improve an illegal dump next to his home" (Kilpatrick 1990). Hyperbolically, the Journal concluded that could be forgiven "for wondering why he ever fled communist Hungary in 1956" (Kilpatrick 1990). Pozsgai was sentenced to jail time and fined $202,000 at least in part because of his defiance: the judge who passed the sentence remarked that he had never seen anyone so stubborn. Even after his conviction, Pozsgai took his case to the right-wing media and said he would do the same thing again. "Pozsgai and his family remain convinced the only thing Pozsgai did wrong was to stumble into the sight of overzealous federal officials while trying to build his own American Dream" (McLarin 1990). His daughter said "they did it because my father is an immigrant…They did it because my father is simple" (McLarin 1990). However, despite his contention he was a 'simple' immigrant, Pozsgai had been a businessman for many years and knew the law. Also, several independent authorities, not just the government, had confirmed the area was a wetland, contrary to what he alleged.

Pozsgai's defense was that the land had been covered in debris (which was true) and also that he was hardly the worst environmental offender, making his sentence disproportionate to his crime. " Victoria Pozsgai said the government turned on her father with a fury never leveled against huge corporations that knowingly dump dangerous chemicals into the nation's drinking water" (McLarin 1990). There may be some truth in this but wetlands play a critical role in mitigating flooding and as a result of his actions, there was property damage to the nearby residents. Pozsgai also said that even if the area was a wetland (which he disputed), he merely added to old fill. However, this does not excuse his actions which clearly worsened the situation, rather than improved it.

There may also be some truth that, as a former refugee from a communist country, Pozsgai may have been unusually resistant and recalcitrant to what he saw as government interference with his right to pursue zealous capitalist activity. His daughter, defending her father also said "what federal officials took as arrogance and willfulness on her father's part is really an awkward determination in the face of situations he does not understand" (McLarin 1990). But not only the government but independent engineers validated the territory's wetland status and clearly told Pozsgai that he was in violation of the law. Pozsgai never attempted to gain the necessary permit and made a case that the area was 1. not a wetland and 2. that his decision to fill the property was safe. He merely acted as he chose.

After three years and a great deal of publicity, Pozsgai's fine was reduced to a relatively meager $5,000 although he still did prison time. Even the judge who reduced the fine "expressed exasperation at Pozsgai's lack of repentance for a conviction that had resulted in a three-year prison term and a measure of national celebrity" and called him a criminal, not a hero (Slobodzian 1992). The conservative lobbying group who defended him, the Washington Legal Foundation called the sentence "the harshest penalty in U.S. history for non-toxic pollution. Foundation lawyers say federal prosecutors are trying to use Pozsgai to set an easy precedent for imprisoning business executives for environmental offenses" (Slobodzian 1992).

However, despite the fact that Pozsgai was a cause celeb of the right, the fact remains that he violated the property rights of his neighbors, flooding their land and impinging upon their property values. That was why they were willing and eager to allow the government onto their private property to keep watch over Pozsgai. This was not simply a case of environmentalism run amuck but a case in which Pozsgai's refusal to acknowledge a fact -- that the area was a wetland -- resulted in considerable and immediate damage not just to animal lives but to human lives. Yet the violation of his neighbor's rights received no publicity. Also, not only was Pozsgai unrepentant about the effects of his action upon the environment; he never apologized to the people whom his actions hurt, either.

Putting aside the fact that his illegal fill caused flooding and harmed his neighbor's properties, the prosecution was entirely justified as a matter of law. Mr. Pozsgai refused to…[continue]

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