Two western Minnesota men have been ordered by a federal judge to pay more than $1.1 million for damage they inflicted when their gunfire punctured a pipeline and released thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into a creek that feeds a river.
Eric J. Weckwerth-Pineda, 25, of Cottonwood, and Tanner J. Sik, 22, of Ivanhoe, were sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis after having pleaded guilty to misdemeanor negligent discharge of a pollutant in connection with the incident on April 24, 2019, near Cottonwood Lake in Lyon County.
The men were each put on a year's probation, along with jointly being on the hook for a restitution amount that the U.S. Attorney's Office has acknowledged will not be recouped from the defendants.
Weckwerth-Pineda and Sik also have admitted in state court to felony criminal damage to property, which may be reduced to a misdemeanor upon successful completion of five years' probation.
According to federal court documents, Weckwerth-Pineda and Sik packed up their guns and drove a pickup truck to a bridge that spans a dam between the lake and a creek that flows another 10 miles from the spot of the leak into the Yellow Medicine River.
Sik fired his AR-15 rifle from about 240 yards and hit the pipeline at least three times, while Weckwerth-Pineda used "the scope on his own rifle to spot [Sik's] shots" as a way to aid his friend's aim, court records read.
Soon afterward that day, the two men and a third friend who had been with them returned to the area and "could see a sheen … across the creek and the pipeline was spraying diesel fuel," according to one court filing.
The third friend reported the leak to authorities.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said in a public accounting of the incident, "That section [of pipeline] fell victim to target practice by some joyriders and sprung a leak."
They were 'bored'
Charges in state court quoted Weckwerth-Pineda as telling a Lyon County sheriff's investigator that they just became bored while shooting at the creek and thought they would "try and hit that pipe."
In an interview Thursday with the Star Tribune, Weckwerth-Pineda said, "I regret it. I feel horrible. I do a lot of hunting and help build things to help creatures survive in that area, and unfortunately [the leak] will harm those creatures. … I was in the wrong place with the wrong person who decided to make one bad call. And well, if you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes."
In a statement released through his attorney Thursday afternoon, Sik said, "I've always loved the outdoors, hunting and fishing with my family. The beauty of Minnesota is incredible. I can't say enough how sorry I am for what I did and how much I regret it. I think about this every day and wish I could take it back."
The owner of the 8-inch-wide pipeline, Magellan Midstream Partners of Oklahoma, estimated that the rupture sent at least 3,906 gallons of diesel fuel into the water. The company said cleanup and pipeline repairs cost more than $1.12 million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent more than $16,000 to assist with the cleanup.
Can't pay full restitution
The defense and prosecution have agreed that the men lack "sufficient financial resources" to make anything more than nominal payments toward the large restitution sum, read one court document filed last week. Therefore, the filing continued, the court ordered that each pay $30 a month for the next 20 years.
Magellan Midstream Partners, however, is not out of luck. The U.S. Coast Guard's National Pollution Fund Center has repaid the company in full and will collect the defendants' modest monthly payments.
Despite that nominal payment plan, Andrea Kropf, regional special agent for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General, said in a post-sentencing statement: "We hope that [Wednesday's] sentencings cause people to think twice before engaging in irresponsible and reckless behavior in the vicinity of an active pipeline."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482