A judge has fined a Coeur d’Alene man $495,000 after he refused for years to install septic tanks or properly store hazardous chemicals at his iron foundry.
The judgment - levied against John Hern Jr. of Hern Ironworks - is believed to be the largest ever assessed in such a case in the Northwest.
The fine stems from a lawsuit filed by the Panhandle Health District two years ago. That suit charged Hern let sewage from bathrooms at the foundry and other industrial shops run directly into the ground for years.
“There’s never been somebody in such total defiance,” said attorney Scott Reed, who represented the health district.
The Thursday decision ends a decade-long dispute between Hern and local regulators over their authority to enforce laws at his 32-acre complex on Atlas Road.
Neither Hern nor his attorney, Harvey Richman, returned telephone calls to their homes and offices Friday.
Hern has operated the foundry for years. He also built a handful of adjacent storage sheds and leases them to small industrial businesses. Kootenai County cited Hern for dozens of building and zoning code violations stemming from construction of the storage sheds.
A metal coating business, a fertilizer company and a road oiling business stored toxic chemicals on Hern’s land without proper spill containment, according to the suit.
When health officials sent area businesses letters inquiring about chemical storage, Hern was the only one of 700 who did not respond.
When county officials attempted routine building inspections, Hern refused to let them on the property.
“What you have here is an egregious violation in terms of Hern’s absolute refusal to comply with anything,” said Reed, who represented the county and the health district. “He totally disagrees with the idea there should be government regulation of anything.”
Hern has even written notes to the county assessor’s office ordering appraisers to stay off his land, Reed said.
It took four months, a court order and an escort by sheriff’s deputies before officials could inspect Hern’s property. There, they discovered several bathrooms - some draining into the aquifer, others into buried 55-gallon drums.
The health district filed suit and asked District Judge Craig Kosonen to consider fining Hern - up to $1,000 a day, under state law - until the mess was cleaned up. The judge said he would consider the matter.
Hern, according to affidavits, declared the regulations were too complicated. He also said he didn’t know his business was above the region’s drinking water source - the Rathdrum Aquifer.
“Mr. Hern may be the only person in Kootenai County who does not know …,” Kosonen wrote in his opinion.
Hern also argued that no toxic pollutants had landed in nearby streams, but Kosonen considered that “as a mitigating factor, not a defense.”
After nearly a year of court battles, Hern hired an engineer to start the cleanup.
He built a community bathroom and sewage disposal system for his tenants and made them get proper chemical containers.
But Kosonen had not yet ruled on the fines.
In his Thursday decision, Kosonen assessed Hern penalties for every day the violations went uncorrected. Given the lengthy list, Kosonen wrote, Hern could have been fined $4.1 million.
But even the $495,000 penalty caused a Seattle spokesman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to whistle.
“For an individual, it’s higher than any our regional office has assessed for any EPA violations in our entire four-state region,” said EPA spokesman Bob Jacobson.