EPA team sniffs out serious crimes

Feds keep low profile and carry big stick

February 14, 2003
By Richard Boyd
St. Tammany bureau


When Randall Ashe or any of his six agents show up, it is too late for one more chance; it's time to pay the piper for committing serious environmental crimes.

In July, that lesson was learned by Robert Torres Sr. and his development company, Tammany Holding Corp. After a three-year investigation, spearheaded by Ashe's criminal investigation division of the Environmental Protection Agency field office in Baton Rouge, Torres' company pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clean Water and Rivers and Harbors acts for dredging and filling near Lake Pontchartrain for the Oak Harbor East residential development south of Slidell.

The violations cost the company $300,000 in fines and $38,000 in restitution to several environmental groups whose complaints had led to the probe.

The case was one of several successful prosecutions discussed by federal officials Wednesday during a public meeting at Mandeville Community Center.

Ashe, assistant special agent in charge of the criminal investigation unit of the EPA's Baton Rouge office, and Beau James Brock of Baton Rouge, regional criminal enforcement lawyer for the EPA, presented a slide show and discussed the role of the low-profile EPA investigators.

Ashe and his agents carry weapons, have arrest power, can obtain search warrants and conduct secret surveillance, and work with federal or state authorities in prosecuting individuals and companies that commit environmental crimes in Louisiana.

Brock said his role is to work with the agents as cases are being investigated, research the law and help them prepare cases.

"When we show up, it is too late for more compromise, more negotiating, more one-more-chance to do right," Ashe said. "We show up when it is time to make the case, collect the evidence, get the search and arrest warrants, and proceed with criminal prosecutions."

One such case resulted in a $247,000 fine against a demolition company that had a contract to tear down an old building in Baton Rouge, he said. "In the process, they came across two cylinders, both stamped poison. Instead of notifying authorities, they just set them outside on the grounds and proceeded."

The tanks ended up at a mobile home in Albany where a woman mistook them for propane gas and tried to use them for heat, he said. "It was deadly methyl bromide, and the fumes killed her and left her son brain damaged," Ashe said. "And all Sims Brothers Construction had to do was call EPA; they would have disposed of the tanks free of charge."

Ashe said the success of his division's work depends on the public, and the more than 70 people at the public meeting -- hosted by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation -- seemed to agree, peppering the two men with questions about enforcement and possible violations.

"We take information from anyone. Call us in Baton Rouge at (225) 389-0216. We will ask you a lot of questions, but we have to make sure there is a potential criminal violation here," Ashe said. "If not, if a civil remedy is more applicable, we pass it on to the appropriate agency."

"These are the Untouchables of the environmental protection arena," foundation director Carlton Dufrechou said.

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Richard Boyd can be reached at
rboyd@timespicayune.com or (985) 898-4816.


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