Central Valley Farmer John Duarte Reaches Settlement with Federal Government
Just before the penalty phase of trial was set to begin on Tuesday, Northern California farmer John Duarte reached a settlement with the federal government, after being fined for plowing over disputed wetlands on his property. With the government seeking a $2.8 million fine and tens of millions of dollars in mitigation expenses, Duarte agreed to pay $330,000 in fines and another $770,000 on compensatory mitigation.
This agreement follows a federal court determination from 2016, when a federal judge ruled that Duarte violated the “Waters of the United States” provision of the Clean Water Act when he unlawfully filled vernal pool wetlands while preparing to plant wheat without first seeking a permit from the federal government. The judge sided with government officials and found that the field hadn’t been plowed in over twenty years so a permit was required before plowing seasonal wetlands.
With trial beginning to establish penalties and the government’s request for up to $45 million in penalties, Duarte said he reluctantly settled but felt it necessary as he feared a big penalty would jeopardize his family, business, and employees. In sum, the settlement forbids Duarte from farming or dredging the disturbed 44 acres for 10 years. However, this excludes moderate non-irrigated cattle grazing. Duarte will also be required to pay a $330,000 fines and spend $770,000 on compensatory mitigation, such as purchasing wetland credits. Additionally, the final settlement does not allow for an appeal of the underlying liability ruling but does not admit liability by Duarte either.
The Department of Justice said this agreement exemplifies that “the law must be obeyed” while showing the government’s commitment to the rule of law and resulting in meaningful environmental restoration. On the other hand, farm advocates argue that the rules covering agriculture and the environment remain muddled and the terms of federal regulatory oversight are still unclear.