When Ben Lupo stands before U.S. District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent to receive his punishment for intentionally polluting the Mahoning River with oil-field waste, we trust that the seriousness of his crimes will result in the maximum time behind bars. Indeed, we believe that the three-year maximum prison sentence is far too lenient for the 20,000 gallons of oily black ooze he ordered dumped in a Mahoning River tributary near his business in Youngstown.
To add insult to the injury suffered by the people of the Mahoning Valley, Lupo had the gall to deny responsibility — through a spokesman, of course — for his actions even after he was caught red-handed. Finally, there’s the fact that rather than get his own hands dirty, he ordered an employee, Michael P. Guesman, 35, of Cortland to dump the fracking waste into the river. Guesman pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clean Water Act.
Judge Nugent, aware of the mastermind of this sordid act, sentenced Guesman to three years’ probation and 300 hours of community service but did not impose a fine or order him to pay restitution.
Lupo, 63, who also was charged with violating the Clean Water Act, last week pleaded guilty and will be sentenced June 16 in federal court in Cleveland. Under the sentencing guidelines, he could get three years in prison, a year of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.
As the pre-sentence investigation is conducted — it will include an examination of his finances — prosecutors, who will be making a recommendation to the judge, would do well to remember that the 20,000 gallons of brine water and oily waste contained hazardous pollutants, including benzene and toluene. Lupo acknowledged emptying such tanks into a storm sewer (and eventually the river) perhaps six times.
An affidavit filed in federal court reported that an employee of his was aware of such discharges “at least 20 times” since November 2012.
While there’s no indication of how hard Judge Nugent will come down on the serial polluter, the comments from U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach of the Northern District of Ohio do give cause for optimism.
“We are pleased the defendant admitted to his actions, which caused great harm to the Mahoning River,” Dettelbach said. “We will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute cases in which people pollute Ohio’s waterways.”
Just how aggressively the federal government intends to go after scofflaws like Lupo will be put to the test in June. The maximum sentence will send a clear message that assaulting the environment and, by extension, the American people, will be dealt with harshly.
ONE LINK IN CHAIN
The U.S. attorney’s office, in partnership with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, should let it be known that Lupo is just one link in this chain of criminal activity.
As we noted last year, there are others who may have knowingly profited from the illegal disposal of fracking waste. Who consigned the waste to Lupo knowing that he wasn’t in any position to dispose of it legally?
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was on button when he commented about Lupo’s guilty plea: “Ben Lupo put his own business interests ahead of the health and safety of our citizens, our natural resources and wildlife. ... He will now be held accountable for this terrible crime.”
Throwing the book at Lupo will certainly hold him responsible for the crimes he committed.