In the face of a $3 million lawsuit, the dredging enemy files an “anti-SLAPP” action

Ecology professor Ben Abbott stares at a $3 million lawsuit and is now turning the tables on the company’s proposal to dredge Utah Lake.

In court filings last week, Abbott’s attorneys laid out their case that Lake Restoration Solutions’ defamation lawsuit is an abuse of the justice system designed to choke Abbott, an outspoken critic of the controversial proposal to shovel one billion cubic yards of lake bed sediment into a sprawling net of subdivisions on one of the West’s largest freshwater lakes.

The professor’s motion was filed under Utah’s so-called anti-SLAPP statutes, which frown upon malicious litigation known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS, filed a lawsuit on Jan. 10, accusing Abbott, a Brigham Young University scientist and leading researcher of Utah Lake’s ecosystems, of spreading “misinformation” about the proposed dredging project and its potential impact. In the face of intense doubts from the scientific community, LRS claims that dredging Utah Lake would reverse its water quality problems that have arisen over decades of neglect, pollution and drought.

“LRS’ primary purpose in this lawsuit is to silence Professor Abbott and prevent him from engaging in public debate about LRS’s project,” attorney Whitney Krogue wrote in a filing filed Friday at April 3 .Salt Lake City District Court. “Furthermore, LRS is asking the court to expand the defamation law to a new limit; to prevent Professor Abbott from making even “derogatory” comments about his project and to prevent Professor Abbott from “poisoning” the debate. These requests go well beyond simply seeking remedy for allegedly false information and have no legal basis.”

The motion asks the court to dismiss the defamation lawsuit while Abbott reserves the right to seek damages against LRS for filing it in the first place.

In an email sent via a publicist, David Jordan, LRS’ attorney who filed the defamation lawsuit, said the company respects the public’s First Amendment right to speak out, but that no one is required to publish defamatory misinformation.

“Lake Restoration Solutions welcomes a vigorous, science-based, public due diligence process on its comprehensive plan to restore the beautiful clear-water lake that was once Utah Lake,” Jordan’s statement said. “We are confident that science will prove that, with proper rehabilitation, Utah Lake can once again be a thriving environment for fish and waterfowl and a place of unparalleled recreational opportunities.”

In various public forums and on his blog, Abbott said LRS had no PhD scientists on its team and had not provided any scientific basis for its core claim that deepening the lake and sequestering contaminated sediment on artificial islands would improve the lake’s water quality. He also asked questions about funding for the project.

These and other statements are lies, according to LRS, designed to advance a personal agenda and turn the public against the project.

“Ben Abbott’s repeated statements that Lake Restoration Solutions does not have a Ph.D. Scientist in his team is just wrong. We shared with his attorneys a roster of nearly 100 scientists, many of whom have PhDs, working on our team,” Jordan said. “Mr. Abbott’s statements that Lake Restoration Solutions is funded with “shady foreign money” are also false. None of our investors are outside the United States.”

That may be true now, but documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through public records indicate that LRS was at one time soliciting funding from international sources.

For his part, Abbott claims his criticism is factual and based on publicly available information. The real defamation is committed by LRS’ lawsuit, its defense attorneys argue.

Abbott and many other critics say LRS is selling their own disinformation about Utah Lake’s problems and potential solutions to convince policymakers of an extreme transformation that is expected to cost $6.4 billion.

Jordan’s statement, for example, contains one of LRS’ allegedly false claims that Abbott and many other scientists have long pointed to. Historically, the water of Utah Lake has never been “clear”; The lake’s opacity contributes to the lake’s ecological resilience, so clearing the water could actually cause damage, Abbott claims.

In return for dredging the lake for ecological health, LRS proposed that the company would keep some of the islands that were created to sell for real estate development.

Abbott’s motion argues that the timing of the defamation lawsuit also shows that it was intended to “cool off” its involvement at a time when the Legislature, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers were contemplating important actions related to the project .

Abbott was served with the lawsuit on June 11, just hours before he was scheduled to speak at the Utah Lake Summit hosted by Rep. Kevan Stratton, R-Orem. This also came days after LRS submitted its application to the Army Corps, which started the environmental review, and a week before the Legislature called its 2022 session where Abbott expected to lobby for repeal of the 2018 bill that included the instructed the Utah Department of Natural Resources to review the dredging project.

Abbott’s latest filing builds on a counterclaim he filed in February and lends substance to his allegation that the defamation lawsuit was filed in bad faith.

During the lawsuit discovery process, Krogue obtained numerous documents from LRS and its investors that support this allegation. While your application extensively cites these documents, the references are redacted in the publicly available version.

The attorney said she made the redactions at the urging of LRS, which claims the information is “confidential.” As a result, the basis for Abbott’s anti-SLAPP action remains partially hidden from the public eye.

Meanwhile, LRS has issued a subpoena to the environmental organization Conserve Utah Valley, demanding all documents it has related to the Abbott case.

The group, which has helped raise money for Abbott’s legal defense, turned over documents last week, but they condemned the request as “overly broad, overly onerous, disproportionate to the needs of the case.”

“We are attempting to work in good faith to provide greater transparency and collaboration to resolve issues related to the Utah Lake Challenges. We wish the developers [LRS] would focus on getting the public involved in their plans, rather than using the law to anger those who wish to participate,” said Craig Christensen, executive director of Conserve Utah Valley. “For an organization that appears unwilling to provide transparency about its plans and its profit plans, LRS appeared to have no qualms about using its lawsuit to take a deep dive into our organization.”

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. In the face of a $3 million lawsuit, the dredging enemy files an “anti-SLAPP” action

Joel McCord

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