A Pierce County developer, his company and an employee have become the first Western Washington defendants to plead guilty to criminal charges in U.S. District Court in connection with stormwater pollution.

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Regulators first saw the muddy runoff washing into a nearby stream after the developer and his team cleared portions of the 52-acre site in Pierce County.

Given that stormwater pollution is among the greatest threats to Puget Sound, the state Department of Ecology issued warning letters. Officials spoke repeatedly with the contractor and his employees. When it didn’t stop, authorities ordered work halted.

State and federal regulators wrangled for more than three years with Bryan Stowe and Stowe Construction to clean up the muddy mess that caused two landslides in 2011 that closed the West Valley Highway through Sumner, Pierce County.

Now Stowe, his company and an employee have earned a dubious distinction: They are the first Western Washington defendants to plead guilty to criminal charges in U.S. District Court in connection with stormwater pollution.

Tyler Amon, acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division in Washington, D.C., said the prosecution is a sign that Stowe repeatedly chose “profit over protection.”

“For us to have to go to felonious conduct … that’s a big step,” Amon said. “But it’s because our regulatory enforcement tools had not brought him into compliance. When those tools aren’t enough, it’s just arrogance.”

Stowe, of Sumner, pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of intentionally violating the Clean Water Act. His Pierce County-based company pleaded guilty last week and his employee entered his plea in December.

In the end the case will cost the builder and his company $750,000 in fines. Stowe faces up to three years in prison, though it’s unlikely he’ll receive that. He and his company also will have to deal with court-ordered stormwater-compliance plans for any future developments. Sentencing is set for September.

Attempts to reach Stowe through his company’s attorney were unsuccessful Thursday.

The issue in this case is how Stowe and his company managed muddy silt during the Northwest rains after clearing land for a building project in 2006 and 2007. Such dirty water can wreak havoc on wetlands, suffocate salmon eggs and other creatures and wash in torrents over roads and parking lots, carrying toxic chemicals all the way to Puget Sound.

That’s why Ecology requires commercial builders to get stormwater-management plans under the federal Clean Water Act during major construction projects, especially in landslide hazard areas. Stowe did. The plan was supposed to eliminate muddy discharges, but it didn’t.

Stowe ignored repeated complaints between 2007 and 2011 to stop flushing dirty water and debris off his site, authorities said. Ecology even issued Stowe a $36,000 fine, which he declined to pay. One of his employees confessed to doctoring water-sampling tests, according to authorities.

Authorities eventually determined his site washed 50,000 tons of material downstream.

“That’s the equivalent of 3,000 dump trucks of soil,” Amon said. “We’re talking about something that’s having a significant impact.”

A portion of Stowe’s fines — $100,000 — will go to a foundation that will conduct restoration work in the areas most impacted by the illegal discharges.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.