Farmer agrees to pay feds $1.1-million fine for plowing his own field
California farmer John Duarte thought he was acting within the law when he plowed a field on his property in 2012.
The government didn't see it that way. Because he plowed up some "vernal pools" of standing water that have been designated as off limits to farmers, he was fined $2.8 million and ordered to purchase tens of millions of dollars in "mitigation credits."
Eventually, rather than face much larger fines and penalties, he agreed to settle the case for $1.1 million in fines and $770,000 in mitigation credits.
"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.
"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."
There was no allowance given for the farmer's intent to obey the law. Instead, the law and regulations were interpreted arbitrarily by the government, probably to make an example of Mr. Duarte.
For those who dare defy the federal government, ruination awaits unless you are brought to heel. The clear erosion of personal property rights should also concern us.
But that's why the "Waters of the USA" regulations were feared by farmers, businessmen, and property owners across the country. The EPA basically took control of not only the "Waters of the USA," but also the property upon which those waters flowed – or, in the case of Mr. Duarte, stood. It was a power-grab unprecedented in American regulatory history. Thankfully, Trump has now rescinded the rule.