Agricultural Developer Agrees to Pay Clean Water Act Fines, Mitigate Impacts to Sensitive Streams and Wetlands
(STL.News) A California agricultural developer has agreed to pay a civil penalty, preserve streams and wetlands, effect mitigation, and be subject to a prohibitory injunction to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) on property near the Sacramento River located in Tehama County, California, the Justice Department announced today.
Roger J. LaPant Jr. purchased the property in this case in 2011 and sold it in 2012 to Duarte Nursery Inc. which, in turn, sold it that same year to Goose Pond Ag Inc. Goose Pond’s activities on the property were the subject of a settlement announced by the Justice Department in September 2018 and approved by a federal judge in June 2019. Duarte’s activities on an adjoining site were the subject of a settlement agreement announced by the Justice Department in August 2017 and approved by a federal judge in December 2017.
“Today’s settlement involving the unpermitted filling of streams and wetlands, if approved by the court, will conclude the long-running Clean Water Act litigation involving these properties near the Sacramento River in Tehama County,” said Jonathan D. Brightbill, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “None of these defendants had traditionally farmed these lands, but instead attempted to profit commercially by acquiring and converting them to new uses in violation of the law. Like the Goose Pond settlement and decree entered in 2019 and the Duarte settlement and decree entered in 2017, today’s agreement serves the public interest in enforcement of the Clean Water Act and deterrence of future violations.”
“The Corps is pleased this longstanding enforcement action has been brought to a close,” said Michael Jewell, the Chief of the Regulatory Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sacramento District. “Unlike most farmers in California’s Central Valley, Mr. LaPant conducted activities that were not lawful under the Clean Water Act. Had he heeded the words of his consultant or discussed his plans with my office in advance, the enforcement action could have been avoided. The Corps is always willing to talk to the public about the Regulatory Program and to provide information on jurisdiction, permit requirements, and any other aspects of the Program.”
LaPant has agreed to pay $250,000 in civil penalties; purchase $100,000 worth of compensatory mitigation credits; dedicate another 10 credits at a vernal pool conservation bank; effect long-term preservation streams, wetlands, and buffer areas on two sites with a total acreage of over 400 acres; and be subject to a prohibition on certain new activities in waters or wetlands absent pre-clearance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In total, the approximate cost of LaPant’s obligations under the settlement is $1.2 million.
This case stems from agricultural development activities LaPant conducted during his brief ownership of the property, which prior to his ownership had laid fallow and unfarmed for more than 20 years. LaPant bought the 1,500-acre property for $1.9 million and sold it less than a year later for $5.6 million. In between those transactions, evidence shows that LaPant operated earthmoving equipment through at least 900 acres of the property, including directly through streams and wetlands. The machinery included the dragging of metal shanks through the ground to break up or pierce highly compacted, impermeable or slowly permeable surface layers, or other similar kinds of restrictive soil layers. LaPant’s conduct in this case, part of an effort to convert the property to orchard use, contributed to the destruction or significant degradation of streams and wetlands at the site.
Even before LaPant purchased the site, he received information that alerted him to the presence of federally protected streams and wetlands on the property. Despite that information, he conducted earthmoving activities in streams and wetlands without a CWA dredge-or-fill permit. The settlement agreement reached today secures a significant penalty and mitigation for these violations, while providing fairness for agricultural developers who comply with the applicable laws.