Farmer Faced $2.8 Million in fines for plowing his field
Categories: Laws & Government, On The Farm, Zoning&Codes
A farmer faced trial in federal court this past summer and a $2.8 million fine for failing to get a permit to plow his field and plant wheat in Tehama County.
A lawyer for Duarte Nursery said the case is important because it could set a precedent requiring other farmers to obtain costly, time-consuming permits just to plow their fields.
“The case is the first time that we’re aware of that says you need to get a (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) permit to plow to grow crops,” said Anthony Francois, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation.
“We’re not going to produce much food under those kinds of regulations,” he said.
However, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller agreed with the Army Corps in a judgment issued in June 2016. A penalty trial, in which the U.S. Attorney’s Office asks for $2.8 million in civil penalties, is set for August.
Francois contends that farmers are exempt from the Clean Water Act rules when they plow. The government disagrees.
“Even under the farming exemption, a discharge of dredged or fill material incidental to the farming activities that impairs the flow of the waters of the United States still requires a permit, because it changes the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters,” the U.S. attorney wrote in court documents.
The government wants Duarte to repair the wetlands and replant certain plants.
“A plain reading of the rules says you don’t need a permit to do what he did,” Francois told the Record Spotlight. “How do you impose a multimillion penalty on someone for thinking the law says what it says.”
According to the Washington Times, President Trump has sought to help farmers by rolling back the Obama administration’s hotly contested Waters of the United States rule, but it didn’t happen soon enough to help John Duarte.
The farmer from California’s Central Valley agreed Tuesday to a settlement with the Justice Department that will have him pay $330,000 in civil penalties and purchase $770,000 in vernal pool mitigation credits for violating the water rule by plowing his wheat field in 2012.
The alternative was to roll the dice in court and risk a fine of as much as $45 million, which would have devastated his family business, Duarte Nursery, located near Modesto.
“This has been a difficult decision for me, my family, and the entire company, and we have come to it reluctantly,” said Mr. Duarte in a statement. “But given the risks posed by further trial on the government’s request for up to $45 million in penalties, and the catastrophic impact that any significant fraction of that would have on our business, our hundreds of employees, our customers and suppliers, and all the members of my family, this was the best action I could take to protect those for whom I am responsible.”
The agreement brings to a close the long-running case that became a rallying cry in rural America against what critics have decried as the Clean Water Act’s regulatory overreach.