Felony pollution charges dropped against Abbotsford inventor

Herb Larsen faced possible jail time after being accused of environmental offences in Texas.

Local inventor Herb Larsen gained profile several years ago with his one-unit commercial baking machine.

Six felony charges were dismissed Monday in U.S. district court in Texas against an Abbotsford man who was accused of environmental offences related to a battery recycling plant.

In exchange, inventor Herb Larsen signed a plea agreement and received one year of unsupervised probation for the misdemeanour offence of “negligent release of a hazardous air pollutant.”

Larsen’s lawyer, Dick DeGuerin of Texas, likened the dismissal of the felony charges to someone who has been charged with murder being found guilty of “spitting on the sidewalk.”

He said the plea agreement, which was brought to him by federal prosecutors involved in the case, amounted to an admission by the State that it did not have a case against Larsen and his co-accused.

“It was a way for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to save face after they spent so much money prosecuting this case,” he said.

Larsen said he was reluctant to sign the plea agreement and had wanted the case to go to trial.

But as part of the agreement, felony charges were dropped against his three co-accused, and he avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential additional legal fees.

“It was one of the most difficult things (signing the plea agreement). I still waffle over it … My reputation is worth more than anything, but I’m tapped out. I can’t keep fighting forever,” he said.

Larsen, 57, was arrested on a warrant in May 2010 at the Sumas, Wash. border crossing while returning from a guest-speaker stint at a Christian men’s retreat in California.

He was charged with six felony offences, including conspiracy to store and dispose of hazardous waste and storing hazardous waste without a permit, for his involvement with Battery Reclamation Inc. (BRI) in Pecos, Texas.

Larsen, an industrial design engineer, said he became involved with then eight-year-old operation – known as Battery Conservation Technology Inc. – after he was approached to design and develop environmental technology for the plant in 2000.

Several months later, the company was unable to raise the funds to continue with research and development. Larsen said he rounded up $1.8 million in investments, and a new company, BRI, was formed.

He said it took over two years for the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to transfer the hazardous waste permit so that the company could continue operating.

Larsen said the former owners had left the property in a mess, and the new owners agreed to clean up one-sixth of the mess each year. He said they met that goal in the first year, spending more than $1 million to do so.

Once the TCEQ approved the environmental permits, the plant went into operation for four months before the permit came up for renewal, and the entire process began again. Larsen said it was “impossible to please” the agency, which “dragged its feet at every juncture in the process.”

Larsen said the cost of hiring lawyers and consultants depleted the investment funds and, with the plant unable to operate and generate revenue, the owners “walked away” from the operation, resulting in the felony charges being laid.

The misdemeanour to which Larsen pleaded guilty involved canvas sacks degrading and spilling zinc manganese powder on the ground, causing a “substantial risk of fire or explosion,” according to court documents.

Larsen said the charges and the court case have been devastating to him.

“It all seems so senseless that after years of providing world-class industrial solutions to environmental problems … that I was so maliciously pursued as an environmental terrorist,” he said.

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