UPDATE, 1:36 P.M.: A California farmer has agreed to pay $1.1 million in penalties for violating the Clean Water Act.
A federal court last year found John Duarte with Duarte Nursery liable for illegally "ripping" 22 acres of his property in Tehama County, damaging federally-protected streams and wetlands. Duarte had claimed he just plowed his farmland.
The Justice Department says Duarte's recently-purchased fields had not been farmed for at least 24 years and that he had been warned he would face penalties without first obtaining a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Under the agreement reached Tuesday, Duarte will also have to preserve and restore creeks, streams and wetlands connected to the Sacramento River.
ORIGINAL STORY: When John Duarte of Duarte Nursery plowed 22 acres of his land in Tehama County near Red Bluff to plant wheat in 2012, the US Army Corps of Engineers filed a lawsuit alleging those actions damaged wetlands and a permit was required.
A judge sided with the Corps last year.
Now, the trial begins to determine whether to uphold a $2.8 million fine. Duarte could also be forced to pay tens of millions of dollars to restore wetlands.
Tony Francois with the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represents Duarte, says the trial could set a precedent by requiring farmers to obtain costly permits just to plow.
“The Clean Water Act says explicitly in it that normal farming practices do not require Army Corps permits,” says Francois.
But Jon Devine with the Natural Resources Defense Council says Duarte’s actions were a clear violation of the federal law.
“The kind of activity that Mr. Duarte has been found liable for is not normal. The court found that there had been nearly 24 years of no activity that was farming-related,” says Devine.
The case preceded a more controversial set of regulations that extended the Clean Water Act to protect isolated wetlands and small streams, but it's become a poster child for opponents of increased federal regulations.
Francois says the steep fine will shut down Duarte’s business and leave hundreds of people unemployed.
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