Portrait of a Polluter

Steve Lathrop decided to take matters into his own hands and do what his city, his county and the state of Illinois had not been able to do — clean up a local eyesore, a low area at the end of his street know as Doubrey Slough.  The 14 acres at the edge of Granite City was filed with water and mosquitoes and a lot of other things.  For 30 years it had served as a dump.  Heavy rains were a constant problem to local residents because this area backed up.  There was no drainage.  According to one study the average annual damage was over $300,000.

Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars had been spent over the years studying the problem to no avail.   The governor proposed a $4.2 million project in the early 70s.  A 1984 study done by the Corps of Engineers recommended a $4.8 million channel be dug to a nearby lake, but that didn’t work out either.

In 1990 Lathrop, a small home builder, got a copy of a U.S. Agriculture book on “Ponds: Planning, Design and Construction” and came up with an idea to clean up the dump and solve the flooding problem.  He optioned the swamp and drew up plans for a lake and adjacent wildlife area.   He proposed building homes around one area of the lake to pay for the project.  It wouldn’t cost the city or the county anything at all.  In fact, it would be a source of new tax revenue.  Not surprising, the major and county officials approved, and the local residents were delighted.

After consulting every local and state agency, Lathrop obtained a loan for his project, hired an engineer, cleaned up the area and constructed the first phase of his lake.  That’s when the Corps of Engineers stepped in.  They issued a restoration order.  In other words, they ordered Steve to put the property back to its original condition, which if taken literally would be a dump.  The Corps refused to meet with Steve or look at his engineering, saying that a wetland may be disturbed only for “water dependent” projects like docks, bridges or marinas.  Lathrop’s project simply would not be considered.  Even the local committee chairman for Ducks Unlimited was dismayed.

A paragraph in a letter from a Corps official explaining the matter to Senator Carol Moseley Braun is telling.
“This District is not debating the application of engineering principles nor his efforts to clean up the property.  However, Mr. Lathrop’s intent in this matter was to create a residential subdivision profit, not for conservation, flood control or wildlife sanctuary purposes which he constantly states in his defense.”

So, you see, it was the idea that Lathrop might reap some benefit from all his hard work.  That is why the Corps decided to punish him.  They put him between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  No one would buy lots next to a dump, so he had no money to repay the loan and no money to restore the land to its original condition.   Steve lost everything, even his father’s retirement fund; and is facing fines of up to $25,000 a day and a possible criminal prosecution with a one year minimum sentence.

That’s why Steve Lathrop is down in the dumps.

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