Although it is his property, federal and local officials still say F. John Appel broke the law when he dumped tree branches, logs and other material into the Ventura River over a four-year period.
But Appel, 51, contends that “bad neighbors” and overzealous prosecutors are out to make an example of him.
A jury on Monday was asked to decide whom to believe after listening to more than two weeks of testimony in Appel’s felony trial. The 12 jury members spent the afternoon discussing the case and are scheduled to return today to continue deliberations.
Appel is charged with one count of knowingly discharging pollutants into the Ventura River, which is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. He is also charged--and is being tried at the same time as his son, Jonathan A. Appel, 30--with conspiracy to violate dumping laws.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched an investigation of Appel in 1993 after neighbors of his 31-acre Oak View property complained of illegal dumping. Appel said the complaints were prompted by disputes of property boundaries.
Investigators concluded that Appel had dumped tons of debris onto 15 acres of the river and ordered him to stop.
Appel refused, contending that the dumping took place on his property and did not affect the flow of the river. He used the same line of defense during his trial.
“The activity alleged did not occur in any jurisdictional areas of the government,” said Christopher Danch, the Appels’ attorney. “There was no dumping in any waters of the United States.”
Danch said Appel is being prosecuted for “not playing the game” with water officials and obtaining useless permits.
One of the issues the jury has been asked to resolve is defining the Ventura River’s high-water mark. Appel contends that the mark is confined to a small channel that is visible year-round.
“The mere clearing of his land is not a violation,” Danch said.
But prosecutors argue that the high-water mark includes most of the flood plain. Further, they produced photographs they say show tons of boulders, tree branches and mulch that “substantially altered the stream bed.”
Officials with the federal Environmental Protection Agency said they witnessed Appel use a bulldozer to push the rocks and debris into the river while cutting a path.
Prosecutors further allege that Appel, who owns and operates Eager Beaver Tree Service, took tree trimmings obtained in the course of his work and dumped them into the river.
In a related matter, a federal judge on Friday threw out Appel’s federal lawsuit that had asked that a ruling be made about who has jurisdiction of the 15 acres alongside and in the Ventura River where the dumping took place.
The EPA filed a civil suit against Appel in November, and a judge in December ordered Appel to stop dumping. In May, the Ventura County grand jury indicted him on dumping and conspiracy charges. Jonathan Appel was indicted on conspiracy charges at the same time.