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Feds move to charge man in false evacuation order
U.S. Geological Survey is pursuing charges against Chris Sanders for impersonating a federal official as well as violation of the agency's trademark.

Legal action is being taken against a Web site operator who has misrepresented the U.S. Geological Survey in a warning that the area around Yellowstone National Park should be evacuated out of concern that the park's supervolcano could erupt.

"We started to take action as soon as we found out about it," said Jessica Robertson of the USGS, adding that the agency was notified on Friday.

The issue has been referred to the USGS's solicitor's office which is pursuing charges of impersonating a federal official as well as violation of the agency's trademark.

"The main issue we have is we don't want people to believe it's coming from us," Robertson said.

The evacuation warning followed news stories about 500 earthquakes detected mainly around and under the northern end of Yellowstone Lake between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1. Since Jan. 1, another 400 quakes have been detected by the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, which monitors the park for seismic activity.

By Thursday, the quake activity had markedly decreased, according to the observatory.

Although they said the activity was "well above typical," scientists at the observatory stated on their Web site that such earthquake swarms are not unprecedented in the last 40 years of monitoring, nor is there any call for concern that a volcanic eruption is likely.

Yellowstone sits atop a huge caldera, or volcanic crater, that encompasses a region 30 by 45 miles. The supervolcano's third and last massive eruption was 640,000 years ago, although 150,000 years ago a volcanic eruption did create a smaller caldera at the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone National Park officials have received a few calls and e-mails from people wondering if the evacuation alert was legitimate, said Al Nash, the park's chief of public affairs.

"Somebody went to some effort to make themselves look legitimate and put out a warning," Nash said. "We're concerned because it looks legitimate. It looks pretty official."

He noted that a lot of the information on the site was lifted from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory site, lending further credence to the warning.

The site with the false warning, www.worldwaterplan.com, has a link on the bottom of its main page in all capital, red letters that reads: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK EMERGENCY!

Clicking on the link leads to a page topped by the USGS logo. Farther down, it quotes the man who registered the Web site, Chris C. Sanders, in claiming that earthquakes in the Yellowstone area will release poisonous gas. It also claims Sanders is a geologist.

"I want everyone to leave Yellowstone National Park for 100 miles around the volcano caldera because of the danger in poisonous gasses that can escape from the hundreds of recent earthquakes. These poisonous gasses that can escape from underneath the lake present even more of a potential problem because of the super volcano," the site quoted Sanders.

Sanders registered the Web site's domain name. A phone number registered to him in Little Elm, Texas, has been disconnected. There was no response to an attempt to contact him by e-mail.

Sanders also posted a video on YouTube.com recommending evacuation. In the video, Sanders points to USGS information about a swarm of quakes in the Yellowstone area as reason to evacuate.

"Therefore I ask that some politicians or everyone that can get together with your politicians, your friends or local advisers, and ask that everybody leaves the caldera, the surface of Yellowstone National Park, immediately. We have a potential eruption on our hands. Again, this is January first, 2009," he said in the video. "This would be a good time to start evacuating."

In the video, Sanders claims there's "a warning kinda going out with the U.S. Geological Survey."

Sanders' warning went viral across the blogosphere, prompting postings from people concerned about the possibility of an eruption to those who were skeptical or disbelieving of Sanders' credentials. Conspiracy theorists said that if an actual eruption were eminent, the government would not alert the public.

It's not unusual for such false postings about Yellowstone to show up on blogs, and even in broadcasts by radio station DJs, who have taken a leap from increasing volcanic activity to a supervolcano eruption, Nash said.

"But I'm not aware of anything quite to this extent," he said.

The issue highlights Nash's concerns about where people get their news.

"There is a legitimate place to get this information; this is not it," Nash said of the Web site. "The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is out there. You can find it. It is run by three really bright geologists. There's really good monitoring in the park. Our offices would be the secondary place to go for information."

Robertson said this isn't the first time USGS has been falsely used in such claims. She said in June a YouTube video used the agency's logo to lend legitimacy to a claim about the end of the world.

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

Click play icon to watch Chris Sander's YouTube video

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