By Associated Press - Tuesday, October 6, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A federal jury heard arguments Tuesday in the case of a miner near Basin who faces criminal charges for digging ponds near his claim that prosecutors say polluted wetlands and a waterway in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Joseph Robertson is charged with violating the federal Clean Water Act. He faces up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if he is convicted.

Robertson lives on the White Pine Lode patented mining claim that he owns. In 2013 and 2014, he dug ponds that discharged dredged and fill materials into an adjacent tributary of Cataract Creek and into nearby wetlands. A U.S. Forest Service agent discovered the ponds when she went to the property to see whether Robertson had complied with a judge’s previous order to remove structures he had built on federal lands without permission.

Robertson dug the ponds to protect his property from fire and to water his horses, his federal public defender said in court filings. Robertson acknowledged at the time that he didn’t have a permit to do the work, but he said a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks official had given him permission to dig.

Cataract Creek flows into the Boulder River, which empties into the Jefferson River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent Robertson a notice in 2014 that he was discharging pollutants without a permit, but Robertson’s wife threw the certified mail notice into the trash at the post office, federal prosecutors said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a criminal indictment against Robertson in May, charging him with unauthorized discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters and malicious mischief for injuring the property of the United States. Government officials estimated it will cost nearly $70,000 to repair the damage, and that the value of the wetlands lost in the 1.2-acre area is estimated between $25,000 and $40,000 per acre.

Michael Donohoe, Robertson’s federal public defender, argued that the ponds don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act because they should not be considered “waters of the United States.” A wetlands expert from the Army Corps of Engineers was expected to testify that the wetlands and the unnamed Cataract Creek tributary do fall under that definition by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The trial began Monday in Helena and is scheduled to last five days.

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