Feds sue Idaho ranch, allege ranchers dumped dirt in river and violated Clean Water Act

The Environmental Protection Agency is suing a Bruneau ranch for clearing dozens of acres of wetlands with construction equipment and building unauthorized roads across a river without permits required under the Clean Water Act.

The Tuesday court filings in the District of Idaho accused Ace Black Ranches of illegally releasing gravel, sand and dirt into the Bruneau River between 2017 and 2021, potentially harming fish species and nearby communities. The lawsuit was submitted by U.S. Attorney Josh Hurwit and other attorneys for the Department of Justice acting on behalf of the EPA.

“The complaint in this case alleges that Ace Black Ranches treated the Bruneau River and state-owned wetlands along the river as private property that could be damaged or destroyed for sand and gravel mining,” an assistant administrator at the EPA, David M. Uhlmann, said in a news release.

Uhlmann added that the ranch made no ”effort to comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act that protects our Nation’s waters from such abuses.”

Ace Black Ranches is an 800-acre cattle ranch in Owyhee County through which the Bruneau River flows, according to the complaint. The Bruneau River is a tributary of the Snake River and is designated as a wild river, which is a river that is generally primitive and unconstrained.

Terry Black, the listed agent for the ranch, could not immediately be reached for comment. In a video posted by the Idaho Farm Bureau last year, members of the Black family, who said the ranch has been in the family since 1875, said the ranch has had problems with the river eroding their farmland. Family members said the ranch has previously worked with the Army Corps of Engineers on erosion issues. The family said EPA investigators have been to their property multiple times in recent years but would not tell them about the intent of their investigation. They said questions they received from the EPA did not “pertain” to their ranch, and that their irrigation systems and land use do not cause runoff into the river.

“These guys tell us they got a problem, won’t tell us what it is,” Terry Black said in the video. “We can’t fix it if we don’t know what it is.”

An EPA investigation found evidence of majorly disturbed land in and near the Bruneau River and “adjacent wetlands,” according to the news release. The EPA also alleges the ranch filled in wetlands to install an irrigation system, constructed roads across the river and in wetlands, and mined gravel from and dumped dirt into the river.

The Clean Water Act regulates all “waters of the United States,” and the EPA requires permits for polluting activities. The EPA asks in its lawsuit for the court to ban the ranch from further earth-moving along and in the river, require the ranch to clean up the damage to the river and pay civil penalties. Federal law authorizes the EPA to pursue close to $67,000 in fines per day for violations.

The ranch filed a court action to prevent the EPA from inspecting its property in 2021, which was later dismissed by a judge, according to the complaint. The EPA was able to inspect the property in 2021 and 2023 after receiving a warrant.

The EPA began its investigation after a tip about the road construction across the river was sent to Idaho officials.

The lawsuit against the Bruneau ranch could be affected by a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year about another Idaho property owner.

Sackett v. EPA, which was about a North Idaho family who moved gravel on property they owned to build a home, severely limited the EPA’s authority to regulate waterways in the U.S. The conservative-dominated court ruled that the agency could only regulate wetlands that have a surface-level connection to the nation’s waters — reversing decades of precedent and allowing many of the nation’s wetlands to be polluted without oversight.