Chairman Burton, Mr. Waxman, and other Members of the Committee:
I am honored and appreciate the opportunity to appear before this Committee today. My name is Victoria Pozsgai-Khoury. As some of you may already know, I am the daughter of John Pozsgai of Morrisville, Pennsylvania. For those of you who are not familiar with my father's story, I will briefly speak to his background and the history of his case. Additionally, I will explain the absolutely devastating effects that impersonal and bureaucratic agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency can have upon families and
To give you an idea of my father's background, you should understand why I am speaking to the Committee today instead of my father. My father is a first generation immigrant to this country, and while he can communicate adequately in English, it is somewhat broken and sometimes results in misunderstandings in both meaning and intent.
Members of the Committee, my father was born in pre-war Hungary. As a small child, he witnessed the horrendous actions of a truly tyrannical government. You see, he lived on a small farm directly across the train tracks from a government run railroad. Each day he witnessed the Nazis corralling Jews and other dissidents into gated cattle cars. He remembers the clanging of the train doors as they closed on the lives of his neighbors, friends, and countrymen. These memories would be formative in the development of his character, and his belief in America and for the freedom it represents.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, it would be nice if my father's story ended here, but it doesn't. Later in life, he was forcibly conscripted to serve in the Soviet Army as a mechanic. He served his time honorably, albeit under the adverse conditions of an occupying force. However, he was ultimately discharged and returned home to his family. All he ever wished for was to raise a family and live a humble life. However, this was not to be.
As I am sure all of you know, the whine of Soviet tank treads were heard all throughout Hungary during the fall of 1956. The time of initial rumblings for democracy in occupied Eastern Europe surfaced. It was the time of the Hungarian Revolution. Born in the same spirit as the American Constitution, the ultimate result was the Blue Danube would run red with the blood of Hungarian patriots.
At this time, my father received notice that he would be forcibly reintegrated into the Soviet Army to serve during the Revolution and the occupation of his homeland. Because he could not morally consent to fighting his fellow countrymen, he fled to freedom in America. He would arrive at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey just a few months later. At that time, the refugees were greeted by Vice President Nixon who promised them that this country would forever protect their rights. Never again would they suffer from an oppressive regime.
My father took these words to heart and raised our family on the belief that America was not just a good nation, but a great one.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, this country was good to my father. Nowhere else in the world would he have been able to arrive with nothing, buy a piece of property and build a truck repair business. For this, both he and my family are incredibly thankful. However, this was not accomplished without literal sweat and blood. My father hand-painted, replaced all the windows by hand, and hand-tarred the roof of a ten-thousand square foot building. He did this while raising two small children with our mother. He took no vacations or breaks over the course of forty years, none. He had no relatives to help him build his business. And, his immediate family lived in a town where the word "immigrant" was literally an epithet.
However, my parents always remained grateful. On January 15, 1964, my father would realize the proudest day of his life when he became a naturalized American citizen. My parents continued to struggle for over forty years, but with much hard work they were successful in building a solid truck repair business. They sent both of their children to college and inculcated in us a belief in our great nation and its Constitution. They taught us that our liberty was only secured if good citizens recognized and complied with the duties of citizenship.
This is John Pozsgai, my father.
As I told you earlier, living in Morrisville, Pennsylvania as an immigrant was not the easiest thing. It is about five minutes outside of Trenton, right next to the famous bridge that has the city's motto on it. "Trenton makes; the world takes." It is an industrial area and one that has been developed heavily over several generations.
Growing up in this area, both my sister and I have vivid memories of playing in the illegal dump that was located across our street. It is a fourteen acre plot of land that had been filled with assorted junk such as cars, steel remnants, fill, and tires, thousands of tires. There were so many discarded tires in this dump that they could have filled several tire stores. I doubt it would surprise you if I told you that a tire store, Jules Tires, was immediately adjacent to this dump.
The dump also had some unique geographic characteristics that
made it stand out. First, it contained a stormwater drainage system
dating from 1936. Additionally, it contained a stormwater drainage
ditch that the township of Morrisville had responsibility for
taking care of. Unfortunately, the township would not recognize
their responsibility for the upkeep and cleaning of this ditch.
As a result, our road and basement flooded every single year for
approximately twenty years. The primary cause was due to approximately
one thousand tires located in the stormwater drainage ditch.
On August 21, 1986, my father signed an agreement of sale and obtained title insurance for the dump across our street. He wanted to build a twelve-thousand five-hundred square foot building that would expand his business and enhance the community. At the very least, an ugly eyesore of a dump would be cleaned up. He removed well over five thousand tires from this dump, approximately a thousand of which were blocking the stormwater drainage ditch. However, within months of acquiring this property, notices were sent to my father from the Army Corps of Engineers informing him of the presence of wetlands. These supposed wetlands stemmed from a "stream" that was connected to "navigable waters of the United States."
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, a "stream" never ran through our newly acquired dump. From the beginning, it was a stormwater drainage ditch that was installed by the Township of Morrisville in 1936. We repeatedly told this to the Army Corps of Engineers, yet they never believed us. It was only in this past year that the Township of Morrisville recognized their responsibility for the upkeep of this stormwater drainage ditch. And then, the Township only did so after we presented it with irrefutable evidence that it had acquired the property on which the ditch lay in 1962.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, my father is the type of man who will tell you straight to your face that he doesn't like you. That may not be politically correct in today's society, but it's honest. That is because he's honest. So when people came to our property and trespassed on it, he told them in no uncertain terms to leave. He believed that America was still a country where a man's property was his own, and the government needed a warrant before it attempted to collect evidence to use against a citizen.
My father is also a man who always believed in complying with the law. He never meant to violate it. But, when he started receiving notices, he did not fully understand some of them. Some of the notices were forwarded to our lawyer who never told us about them. (Our lawyer was reprimanded later for drunkenness in court.) Many of them actually referred to a completely different piece of property, with another tax parcel number. And, a few my father flat-out ignored because he was totally convinced there was a mix up between the pieces of property being cited.
Remember, this was an illegal dump for approximately thirty years. People had deposited fill, cars, and tires all over it. He never, in his wildest imaginations, thought that he would be cited for wetlands violations for cleaning up his property and adding clean fill to this dump.
In 1987, my father was informed by the Army Corps that he was being civilly sued to restore the property to its previous condition. It's important to understand that the Army Corps wanted him to reestablish the damming effect that approximately one thousand tires had in the stormwater drainage ditch. In effect, they were telling him to re-dam his property that had been an illegal dump for over thirty years.
When he was told by Army Corps that he needed a permit to build his truck repair shop, he obtained a water quality permit from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources. He did this, even though he was told by the Department of Environmental Resources that his new property, the dump, was not on the National Wetlands Inventory.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, at every point along
the way my father kept asking, "How can we make this work?"
When he was told by the Army Corps that he must do "mitigation"
to build on his property, he thought he was being asked for a
bribe. He went to the FBI to report it. He never fully understood
what he was doing wrong, yet Army Corps sued him. Concurrently,
Army Corps referred his case to the Environmental Protection Agency,
who then referred it to the Department of Justice for criminal
prosecution. And, at the same time he was being sued, the Army
Corps was continually asking for more information to process his
Talk about a Catch-22.
He was arrested. His house was searched for weapons by two federal EPA officers, Our family owns no weapons, besides the knives we use in our kitchen. We are still trying to figure out why our house was searched. Our family had little to no money for a lawyer as my father had invested most of it in the dump across the street from our home.
Because of Army Corps' actions, my father was civilly sued and had a judgement laid against him. My father was sentenced to three years in prison and a $202,000 fine.
The effect this had upon my family was absolutely devastating. In the end, my father was imprisoned for a year and a half, lived in a halfway house for a year and a half, and was given five years of supervised probation. My family was forced to declare bankruptcy. Our family was unable to pay the property taxes on our dump. Subsequently, the judge lowered his fine to $5000. I lost my job as a journalist, after my editor explained to me that my father's name was too visible in the news. But, the thing that hurt the very most was scheduling my own wedding between trials and appeals.
At the time my father was sentenced, he was the "worst environmental violator" in the history of the United States. No one had gone to prison for the Exxon Valdez disaster. No one went to prison when EPA noted 22,348 pounds of toxic TRI chemicals were released into the water in Essex, New Jersey. But, John Pozsgai went to prison for Clean Water Act violations on fourteen acres of an illegal dump in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.
I sincerely wonder whether EPA has ever considered investigating the Army Corps for the countless acres of wetlands they regularly destroy in their projects. That would be an interesting exercise.
While my father was still in prison, the Army Corps ordered a restoration of newly acquired property. They wanted to 'restore it' as a wetlands. So, in the process of "restoring" our property, they excavated ten acres and moved four-hundred loads of fill from one side of the property to the other. They dug a hole and said it would turn into a pond.
Ten years later, the hole is still a hole, although some cattails do grow in it. The land is hilly, where it was relatively flat before. And, my father is still receiving notices of "violations," both new and stemming from civil order and the cease & desist order. What particularly astounds me is my father was notified these new violations occurred after the Army Corps confirmed, in the presence of his lawyer, that they saw no new violations.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, this harassment has simply gone too far. Our family has been bankrupted. My father lost use of his property without ever being compensated for his loss. Worst of all, my father literally lost three years of his life. This occurred, even though the Solicitor General of the United States admitted, "that the evidence that the government had jurisdiction on the Pozsgai property is admittedly thin."
So, Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, many of you may be wondering what can be done. I would propose a "five-tiered" solution.
First, the Army Corps and EPA should return to a constitutional view of private property. The Army Corps and EPA should not be able to simply declare an area wetlands and diminish its value without compensating its owner.
Second, reform the permitting process. The Army Corps
and EPA should both have a simple pamphlet that actually explains
their permitting procedures to citizens. For ten years now, my
father and his family have been unable to obtain a simple
explanation for applying for a permit. To this very day, the Army
Corps cannot succinctly explain the permitting process in simple
and easy terms. To mandate this would be a true "reinvention
Third, differing definitions of what is, and what is not, a wetlands must be resolved. The Army Corps and EPA evaluate wetlands differently. One agency may not recognize a piece of property as wetlands, while another one may.
Fourth, an independent citizens' ombudsman office should be created. It should possess the administrative authority to overrule decisions of the Army Corps and EPA regarding section 404(B) of the Clean Water Act.
Fifth, Congress should review our case and others like it, and provide for comprehensive private property relief.
In conclusion, I still believe America is a great nation. I am firmly convinced that in no other nation would two simple daughters of a Hungarian immigrant ever be allowed the honor of addressing a full Committee of its governing body. However, I am not sure my father feels the same way. He is a man who believed enough in this country to seek citizenship. Now, he is a convicted felon, and he still does not understand why he was ever charged.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, thank you.