Farmer Forced Into $1 Million Settlement After Feds Took Him To Court Over Plowing His Land

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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California farmer John Duarte settled with the federal government Tuesday, ending a nearly five-year enforcement action started after he was fined for plowing over federally protected vernal pools on his land, according to a Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) press release.

Under the settlement, Duarte has agreed to pay a $330,000 civil penalty, buy $770,000 worth of “mitigation credits” to offset damage to the environment, and restore the land as much as possible. In return, Duarte “admits no liability.”

“This has been a difficult decision for me, my family, and the entire company, and we have come to it reluctantly,” Duarte said 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 vernal pools are seasonal puddles or shallow lakes that are protected as “Waters of the U.S.” under the Clean Water Act. Some of the pools were located on property Duarte purchased in 2012.

Duarte had a contractor plow the land to farm, and the contractor hit some of the vernal pools. The Army Core of Engineers fined Duarte $2.8 million and mandated he purchase tens of millions of dollars’ worth of mitigation credits for polluting federally-protected waters.

Since then, Duarte has refused to pay the fine, claiming his actions were exempted under the Clean Water Act as “normal farming practices.” The Army Corps of Engineers, however, only recognized “ongoing” farming activity as a normal farming practice under the act. Because Duarte was plowing property for the first time, the federal government maintained he needed a permit for the first time he plowed. (RELATED: Obama Is Gone, But Not His Administration’s Crusade To Crush A Farmer)

“John would have preferred to see this case through to trial and appealed the court’s liability ruling, which holds that plowing a field requires federal permission — despite the clear text of the Clean Water Act and regulations to the contrary,” PLF attorney Tony Francois said in a statement. “John and his counsel remain concerned that legal liability for farming without federal permission undermines the clear protections that the Clean Water Act affords to farming and poses a significant ongoing threat to farmers across the nation.”

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