OCTOBER 1, 2014 — A passenger vessel operator has pleaded guilty in a case involving unauthorized dredging by "prop washing," using a replica pirate ship.
Captain David Wayne Luther operates the Belle of Topsail, a 49 passenger replica of an 1880's riverboat that cruises from Surf City, N.C., and the Raven, a replica pirate boat that "attacks" it. However, in 2012, Captain Luther was also apparently putting the Raven to uses that drew down the wrath of the U.S. EPA.
On September 29, U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker announced in federal court in Atlanta, GA, before Senior United States District Judge James C. Fox, that Captain Luther had entered a guilty plea to violating the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.
"According to information in the public record" says the EPA, "on July 29, 2012, officers with the North Carolina Marine Patrol responded to a complaint of dredging in waters near Surf City, North Carolina. North Carolina Marine Patrol officers determined that Luther was "prop washing" with the M/V The Raven. The officers ordered Luther to cease and desist dredging activities. Approximately three hours later, the North Carolina Marine Patrol received another complaint of dredging activity by Luther. On July 30, 2012, a Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) representative took measurements at the violation site and confirmed unauthorized dredging activity."
"The dredging of federal waterways is strictly regulated to protect water quality and wildlife," said Maureen O'Mara, Special Agent in Charge of EPA's criminal enforcement program in North Carolina. "The defendant repeatedly dredged material in an environmentally sensitive area that has been designated an essential fish habitat. EPA will hold violators accountable as part of its mission to protect human health and the environment."
On August 10, 2012, says the EPA, CAMA issued a Notice of Violation and Request to Cease Unauthorized Development to Luther. A copy of the Notice was hand delivered to Luther on August 14, 2012. During the morning of August 14, 2012, CAMA received an anonymous complaint alleging dredging activity during the night time hours involving the M/V The Raven at the violation site. During the afternoon of August 14, 2012, a multi-agency site visit confirmed additional dredging activity at the original violation site. The violation site was determined to be a Primary Nursery Area for oysters.
The maximum penalty that Captain Luther faces at sentencing for both counts is a total of two years imprisonment, and a maximum total fine of $200,000. Pursuant to his plea agreement, says the EPA, Captain Luther has also agreed to purchase .21 acres of coastal wetland restoration in order to compensate for impacts to wetlands and other jurisdictional waters impacted from his criminal conduct prior to sentencing hearing. "If he fails to make the purchase," says the EPA, "Luther has agreed not to contest a $50,000 additional fine."
The criminal investigation was conducted by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and North Carolina Marine Patrol. Assistant United States Attorney Banumathi Rangarajan is handling the prosecution of the case.