Riverdale Mills owner seeks $16 million in damages Mills owner, battling EPA, seeks $16M in damages

Linda Bock

Minutes before 74-year-oId entrepreneur James M. Knott Sr. took the witness stand last month in his trial against the federal government, he said he felt charged, as if he were just going out to a wrestling match.

“I’ve really been thinking about this for 6 years, 9 months,” Mr. Knott said. “I’m raring to go.”

It was on Nov. 7, 1997, that nearly two-dozen armed special agents from the Environmental Protection Agency raided Mr. Knott’s company, Riverdale Mills Corp., on the Blackstone River in Northbridge.

Mr. Knott has been embroiled in legal battles since that day, and is the plaintiff in a $16 million lawsuit seeking monetary damages caused by the raid and to expose what he claims were overzealous EPA agents who violated his constitutional rights.

In 2001, Mr. Knott told a ” 60 Minutes” producer that it would be a crime to walk away and allow EPA agents to do to others what they had attempted to do to him. At issue is whether the government had probable cause to find that Riverdale Mills discharged acidic rinse water with a pH of less than 5 into a publicly owned sewer system, something which Mr. Knott has maintained is chemically and physically impossible for him to have done.

In March, a U.S, District Court judge allowed Mr. Knott’s civil action to proceed. The 38-page complaint against the government was originally filed in 2000 in U.S. District Court in Worcester by the Washington Legal Foundation on behalf of Mr. Knott and Riverdale Mills. The complaint names three EPA agents who allegedly violated Mr. Knott’s rights through unlawful searches and seizures and selective enforcement of EPA regulations – allegedly because of Mr. Knott’s outspoken criticism of the agency.

The suit alleges that pH values recorded as 7 from samples taken Oct. 21, 1997, were changed to read 4, and that some 7s were written over to look like 2s. Lower pH values indicate higher acidity, and values below 5 would constitute violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Mr. Knott’s four-day trial began July 21 before Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in federal court in South Boston. It concluded Aug. 9, and written closing arguments were due Friday.

Mr. Knott, 74, of Northbridge, is the founder and principal owner of Riverdale Mills Corp., 130 Riverdale St. He purchased the mill, which is more than 150 years old, in 1979, turning what had been a vacant, dilapidated property into a multimillion–dollar international business that manufactures zinc-galvanized and plastic-coated welded steel wire mesh used for lobster traps, erosion control, security fencing and other purposes.

Riverdale Mills Corp. was a recipient of the 1999 Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Toxins Use Reduction. The EPA filed criminal charges against Mr. Knott in August 1998, alleging he had knowingly discharged polluted water into the town of Northbridge’s sewer system. The charges, which carried a maximum fine of $1.5 million and up to six years in prison, were dismissed eight months later when a federal prosecutor discovered that information which would have cleared Mr. Knott had been omitted from a search warrant application.

“I am committed to exposing the individual and his or her co-conspirators who tried to take $1.5 million and six years of my life away from me,” Mr. Knott wrote in a memo after successfully proving that the EPA agents falsified their reports and improperly seized thousands of documents in the November 1997 raid.

In June 2000, Mr. Knott, using the federal Hyde Amendment, successfully sued in U.S. District Court to recover his legal fees, labeling the government’s original case against him “vexatious” and an instance of harassment. That award was subsequently overturned by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the EPA agents may have had good reason to mark over numbers recorded when they tested the water.

Undeterred, Mr. Knott pressed ahead with his $16 million lawsuit, vigorously opposing the government on the details of the raid, agents’ observations and test results.

On July 21, Mr. Knott was the first witness to be called to the stand by his lawyer and friend of more than 45 years, Warren G. Miller, of the Boston-based firm Miller & Miller. Mr. Knott’s legal team also includes Henry T. Dunker of Weymouth, Jamy B. Buchanan Madeja of the Boston-based Buchanan & Associates, and Paul D, Kamenar and Daniel J. Popeo of Washington Legal Foundation. The government was defended by R. Joseph Sher, a senior trial counsel for the Department of Justice, assistant U.S.

Attorney Barbara Healy Smith, and Sharon T. Wells, senior assistant regional counsel for EPA.

Mr. Knott’s suit centered on the actions of EPA agents Justin Pimpare and Daniel Granz, who arrived unannounced at the mill in October 1997 after the government claimed it received an anonymous letter, postmarked in Worcester on Sept. 29, 1997, alleging environmental violations there.

Judge Gorton threw the agents’ evidence out of court in 1999, ruling their actions violated Mr. Knott’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. In his August 2000 decision granting Mr. Knott financial relief, Judge Gorton wrote that the court was troubled by the EPA’s unnecessary harassment of the defendant and his employees in the November 1991 raid, when they sent a “virtual SWAT team” of 21 agents, many armed, into the mill.

At the trial this past month, James E. Madigan, superintendent of the sewer division for the Northbridge Department of Public Works, testified that the town’s facility was not damaged in any way by discharges from Riverdale Mills. Mr. Madigan also said that the flows – only one-tenth of 1 percent of the daily flow into the town plant – never caused the town to violate any EPA regulations.

The drama built as Mr. Miller interrogated Stephen T. Creavin, the DPA special agent who initiated the agency’s criminal investigation in October 1997.

Mr. Creavin admitted that he did not read the logbooks of agents Pimpare and Granz, compiled on Oct. 21, 1997, during their site visit, before referring the case for criminal prosecution the very next day. Furthermore, while the EPA pointed to the letter of Sept. 29, 1997, as that which triggered their case, Mr. Creavin testified that he had opened an investigation into Riverdale Mills more than a month earlier, on Aug. 20.

Mr. Knott’s lawyers’ contended that despite having no evidence the mill harmed the environment or posed any threat to human health, Mr. Creavin proceeded with the case. The November 1997 raid was followed by a second raid in July 1998. Mr. Knott and Riverdale Mills Corp. were indicted Aug. 12, 1998, but the government dropped all charges shortly before trial the following April, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

Another witness in Mr. Knott’s suit was James R. Roth, a retired environmental engineering expert who worked for the Department of Defense for nine years and managed Alpha Analytical laboratory in Westboro for 16 years. Mr. Roth testified that “straight chemistry” shows that the pH levels of 4 allegedly found by EPA agents were impossible, as the rinse water could not have been outside the range of 5 to 9 in pH.

It also emerged at trial that the pH meters used by the EPA agents were not calibrated, and that only pH paper was used for some of the tests.

David P. Grimes, a retiree FBI handwriting expert, testified that the 7 in agent Granz’s logbook appeared to have been altered.

“I made a mistake,” Mr. Granz told the court, “and wrote a 7 first and made it a 4; I wrote it in the wrong spot. I don’t recall overwriting anything in the logbook. Too long ago.”

Michael O’Shaughnessy, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at WPI, testified for the plaintiff regarding tests he conducted at Riverdale Mills in 1999 simulating manufacturing conditions. Discharges never violated EPA standards. The government called a witness William Osbahr, an environmental engineer who specialized in air emissions testing for the EPA. Mr. Osbahr said he was asked to be a part of the technical team brought into the mill on Nov. 7, 1997, but was not asked to bring a pH meter. He stated that none of the seven readings at the mill’s manhole No.2 was lower than a pH of 5.

Brian McKeown, an expert on civil and environmental engineering who is employed at the National Enforcement Investigation Center in Denver, Colo., was also a defense witness.

Mr. McKeown said EPA asked him to prepare a report for the criminal case against Mr. Knott in 1999. Mr. McKeown was prepared to testify that all 14 samples taken at manhole No.1 violated the EPA’s standards, but that testimony was based upon assumptions and information taken from the mill’s original 1986 permit applications.

Mr. McKeown admitted he had never been to Riverdale Mills, that the NEIC originally declined to provide expert assistance, and that he never asked Mr. Creavin whether the discharges ever fell below pH 5 or if there were evidence of harm to the public sewer system.

Joseph Canzano, a 17-year employee in the EPA’s civil division, said he became aware of Riverdale Mills in 1997 when a “tips” letter crossed his desk, but was unaware that the agency’s criminal division had taken an interest in the case.

Mr. Canzano testified that a standard draft inspection report suggested that no records were being kept at the mill, and that the pH data suggested a violation, so he therefore drafted an administration order in 1997.

Witness Peter W. Kenyan, the EPA’s regional criminal enforcement lawyer in Boston, said he got involved with the case in October 1997, and learned of the allegedly low pH levels and high levels of zinc.

“Yes, I thought it was appropriate to open an investigation,” Mr. Kenyan said, referring to a criminal investigation.

As time went on, Mr. Kenyan said, he learned that Mr. Knott maintained he owns Riverdale Street, where manhole No.1 is located. That, he said, created some problems in prosecuting the case, although government agents never concluded that they couldn’t prove violations at that location. The government stipulated before the 1999 trial that Riverdale Mills owned the street and the sewer.

“EPA is not a straight law enforcement agency,” Mr. Kenyan said, referring to what charges the government ultimately decided to pursue.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Kenyan admitted that he never examined the agents’ logs, nor did he interview Mr. Granz. Mr. Miller asked Mr. Kenyan whether he thought it was important to review agents’ source materials before beginning a criminal investigation, and Mr. Kenyan said he didn’t know how to answer the question.

Mr. Kenyan said he helped prepare the affidavit for the November 1997 search warrant without informing the federal judge of the ownership issues concerning manhole No.1. Mr. Kenyan also said he did not suggest that Mr. Creavin find out who wrote the letter tipping the EPA to the alleged violations.

Mr. Kenyan also testified that he did not know what the pH readings had been, and was unaware that some had been changed from 7s to 4s.

“I’ve heard about it since, but that’s not what I was told then,” Mr. Kenyan said.

Government lawyers had indicated they would call two former mill employees as witnesses, but neither appeared.

Mr. Knott, despite 14 years of military training including two in active-duty command of an armored battalion vehicular maintenance department, recalled being astonished at the way the EPA conducted their inspection and at the behavior of some agents.

Mr. Knott said that, according to research conducted by Ms. Buchanan Madeja into similar prosecutions brought by the EPA in New England, 19 of 20 defendants settled.

Ms. Buchanan Madeja said the vast majority of companies settle as quickly as possible in such cases because they are more concerned about the adverse public perceptions than about proving that allegations are inaccurate or unfair. Thus, she said, the EPA issues press releases against companies that refuse to settle, such as the Aug. 12, 1998, EPA release headlined: “Northbridge Businessman and Company Indicted for Environmental Violations.”

“This civil case took unbelievable courage and fortitude both financially and environmentally,” Ms. Buchanan Madeja said. “I am proud to be associated, despite the cost of some relationships with environmental regulators.

“There are still some environmental regulators who wear the white hats, and the people in business wear black hats,” she added. “Because Jim Knott was willing to stand up and fight back against being unfairly charged, some assumed he wore the black hat, and he didn’t.”