Facing $3 million lawsuit, scientist countersues Utah Lake’s would-be dredgers

A BYU professor says Lake Restoration Solutions is abusing the justice system to intimidate him into silence.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Abbott, Assistant Professor of Ecosystem Ecology at BYU, takes a water sample from the Benjamin Slough on Thursday April 25, 2019.

Ben Abbott, the Utah scientist facing a real estate developers’ $3 million defamation lawsuit, went on offense Tuesday, filing a countersuit alleging the company proposing to dredge Utah Lake is abusing the justice system to intimidate him into silence.

Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS) has alleged the outspoken critic of the project to build islands for future residential development is spreading disinformation in an “illegal” campaign to turn the public against the plan.

Abbott’s lawyer argues the researcher’s statements, made in various public forums, are not false and the LRS’s suit is itself an illegal “a strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP action, which should be tossed and subject to severe sanctions.

“I’ve been really impressed with how brave [Abbott] has been through this, where he’s not allowed himself to be silenced by them. Most people, they get a $3 million lawsuit, and they would back down,” said attorney Whitney Krogue, who unveiled the countersuit Tuesday at Lindon Marina. “Our argument will be that that is the purpose of this lawsuit.”

Abbott is a professor of ecology at Brigham Young University, where he has devoted much of his research to Utah Lake, the West’s third-largest freshwater lake. He and many other scientists have raised serious concerns about LRS’s plan to scoop up a billion cubic yards of lake bed in what they see as a real estate deal dressed up as phony restoration. The company is proposing to spend $6.4 billion on the project and would assume title to some of the land created.

In public forums and on social media, Abbott has said LRS has no doctorate-level scientists on its team and has no scientific basis for its core claim that deepening the lake and sequestering contaminated sediments in islands would improve the lake’s water quality.

Those and other statements are defamatory lies, according to LRS executive Jon Benson.

“In our complaint, we ask that Mr. Abbott stop making false statements about Lake Restoration Solutions and its Project to restore Utah Lake,” he wrote in an email. “We also ask that those false statements be removed from Mr. Abbott’s social media and other websites. Notably, we do not ask him to stop participating in the public process or sharing his criticisms and opinions about the Project.”

Benson’s email ratcheted up the war of words between his company and the scientists, calling his behavior unethical and unlawful.

“We intend to prove our case in a court of law,” Benson wrote, “while Mr. Abbott seems intent on creating a public spectacle to promote his own personal agenda.”

In her answer to the LRS suit, which the company filed on Jan. 10 in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court, Krogue disputed each of LRS’s allegations, citing public information. She accused Benson of grasping at subtle nuances to frame Abbott’s remarks as false.

For the past four years, LRS executives have been claiming to have amassed the evidence and expertise to prove their project can succeed.

“They say, ‘we’ve got a team of consultants,’ but they haven’t shown us. They haven’t given us any names,” Krogue said. “More importantly, they keep saying, ‘Look, we’ve got science to back up our project,’ but they haven’t done anything to show that to the public.”

Abbott is a 2009 graduate of Utah State University and completed his doctorate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he studied biogeochemical cycles, soil hydrology, ecological disturbance and science-policy interactions. In 2017 he returned home to Utah where he assumed his current post at BYU after three years of postdoctoral research.

Later that same year, LRS submitted a proposal with the Utah Department of Natural Resources seeking to acquire state-owned lake bed in exchange for restoring the lake. Since then, Abbott has been scrutinizing the proposal, which is undergoing an environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“As I learned more about the LRS Project, I became increasingly alarmed by LRS’s proposed methods, its apparent focus on development rather than ecological restoration, and the credentials of the project team publicized by LRS,” Abbott wrote in a declaration filed with the court. “As a scientist and a Utahn, and as one of Utah’s most knowledgeable experts on the ecology of Utah Lake, I felt compelled to speak out and voice my opinion that the LRS Proposal is not in line with best practices in restoration ecology and would irreversibly damage one of Utah’s most critical public assets.”

Since he was served with the LRS suit, Abbott has made several public presentations opposing the project and his criticisms remain publicly available on his blog. His supporters have raised more than $12,000 toward his legal defense on GoFundMe.