Lupo’s 28-month prison term is a warning to other polluters

Ben Lupo, the Mahoning Valley’s serial polluter, got a break from U.S. District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent when he was sentenced Tuesday to two years and four months in federal prison and fined $25,000.

Lupo, former owner of Hardrock Excavating in Youngstown, could have faced a longer term behind bars had the judge thrown the book at him. The maximum sentence, which was sought by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad J. Beeson, is three years and a $250,000 fine.

Beeson had argued that the court needed to send a strong message to others of Lupo’s ilk that intentionally polluting Ohio’s waterways is a serious criminal act. The prosecutor had strongly opposed house arrest or probation, which defense lawyers sought.

Attys. Joseph Gardner of Canfield and Roger Synenberg of Cleveland had argued that their client admitted to violating the federal Clean Water Act and, therefore, deserved leniency. Gardner and Synenberg told the judge Lupo is in such poor health that incarceration would be a death sentence.

Tuesday’s proceedings in federal court in Cleveland lasted more than three hours and featured prosecutors and defense expert witnesses to bolster their cases.

What was not in dispute, however, was the fact that Lupo ordered two of his employees to dump fracking waste into a storm drain that led to a tributary of the Mahoning River. The oily black ooze ultimately ended up in the river.

As Judge Nugent noted, the illegal discharges occurred on more than 30 occasions. “It was done at night and in secret,” the judge said, suggesting that the defendant was well aware he was breaking the law.

On hand for the sentencing was the federal government’s chief lawyer in northern Ohio, U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, whose comments after the proceedings left little doubt about the Justice Department’s commitment to enforce federal environmental statutes.

“Clean water and fresh air are not only important, they are the birthright of every man, woman and child in this great state,” Dettelbach said. “Today’s sentence was a significant sentence, but it was fully justified by Mr. Lupo’s repeated — 31 different times — his repeated decisions to have pollutants dumped,” into the tributary. “Environmental crimes are extremely serious matters.”

Guilty plea

Ever since this rape of the Mahoning River came to light last year, we have urged state and federal environmental and law enforcement officials to go after Lupo with all the power and might of the government. His decision to plead guilty — three of his former employees had previously admitted to violating the Clean Water Act — was not an act of contrition. Rather, it was a realization on Lupo’s part that he was caught red-handed after confessions from the two employees he ordered to dump the waste.

In urging Judge Nugent not to be swayed by the arguments from Lupo’s lawyers about prison being a death sentence, we contended that the federal prison system is well equipped and prepared to treat his various health problems. On Tuesday, the judge confirmed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had assured him of its ability to care for Lupo.

Therefore, while we are pleased with the sentence, we are disappointed that the $250,000 fine that could have been imposed by Nugent was reduced to $25,000. The clean-up of the tributary and the Mahoning River cost more than $3 million. That means we, the taxpayers, are ultimately footing the bill for the sins of a greedy businessman.

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