Agriculture

State slams a California dairy with fines, but the owner won’t pay

Dairy owner James Sweeney with one of his cows.
Dairy owner James Sweeney with one of his cows.

State regulators have told a recalcitrant dairyman in Visalia to stop playing games with them over a required annual report about water quality or potentially be prosecuted for failing to cooperate.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board said it fined Sweeney Dairy of Visalia $75,600 for failing to file its 2015 annual report about the impacts of the dairy on water quality.

The board upped the ante by also issuing a cease and desist order. If the dairy owner does not file the report, the board could refer the case to the attorney general’s office for prosecution, said water quality board spokesman Doug Patteson.

Dairy owner James Sweeney admits he has not filed the yearly reports since 2009.

We couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t pay our other bills.

James Sweeney, Visalia dairy owner

In an interview, he said he did not file the reports at first because the dairy industry was on hard times and he could not afford it. But now it’s a matter of principle because “what they’re doing is wrong,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fines are piling up.

Since 2011, the regional board has levied $207,714 in fines, including the most recent, against Sweeney and his wife, Amelia.

All the fines are under appeal, Sweeney said. He said he expects to win the cases if his lawyer succeeds in getting them out of the board’s enforcement arm and into the courts.

Sweeney said his dairy has only 280 cows – small by San Joaquin Valley standards. Most regional water quality boards in California have exempted small dairies from the report requirements due to the expense of preparing them, he said.

Annual reports are a vital component of the Dairy General Order because they inform the board about manure handling activities at dairies, and nutrient management planning on dairy cropland.

Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer Central Valley Water Quality Control Board

To write a report, it is necessary to hire an engineer and a certified agronomist at a cost of thousands of dollars, he said.

When the reporting requirement was put into place, the dairy industry was reeling economically, he said.

“We couldn’t afford it,” he said. “We couldn’t pay our other bills.”

But the regional board said in a statement announcing the latest fine that it is simply enforcing the Dairy General Order, adopted in 2009 and revised three years ago, to protect water quality.

“Annual reports are a vital component of the Dairy General Order because they inform the board about manure handling activities at dairies, and nutrient management planning on dairy cropland,” said Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer for the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board.

The Sweeneys also failed to put in place other requirements such as groundwater monitoring, the board said. Sweeney said groundwater monitoring costs at least $1,800 a year.

Sweeney said he grew up in Sonoma County and knew from a young age he wanted to be in the dairy business.

He majored in animal science at Fresno State, rented a dairy in Caruthers for a few years, then moved to Visalia and rented a dairy that he and his wife bought eight years ago. They own 61 acres east of Visalia, he said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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