Business & Real Estate

Sacramento tomato tycoon beats state water pollution regulators

In a rare move, state officials have rescinded a $1.5 million fine against Morning Star Packing Co. of Woodland over water-pollution allegations at its Williams plant.
In a rare move, state officials have rescinded a $1.5 million fine against Morning Star Packing Co. of Woodland over water-pollution allegations at its Williams plant. Sacramento Bee file

Chris Rufer, a Sacramento-area tomato tycoon who loves battling government, has won his fight with California regulators over a major water pollution fine.

The state Regional Water Quality Control Board has rescinded its $1.5 million fine against Rufer’s company, Morning Star Packing Co. of Woodland, for expanding the wastewater discharge ponds at its plant in Colusa County without getting permission. Morning Star produced evidence that it had notified the water board’s staff of the changes beforehand.

“We didn’t go around anybody’s back,” Rufer said Tuesday. “We didn’t cheat anybody.”

Morning Star is one of the top tomato processors in the state, with annual revenue surpassing $700 million. The fine was among the largest issued by the water board.

“It was a big deal when they issued (the fine), and it’s a pretty big deal that they rescinded it,” said Morning Star’s lawyer Kristen Castaños.

The regional water board rescinded the fine in late February.

The board levied the fine in February 2016, saying Morning Star violated state regulations by expanding the wastewater discharge ponds around its plant in Colusa County in 2012 without getting authorization from the board. The expansion enabled Morning Star to discharge 266 million additional gallons of wastewater over a four-year period, according to state officials.

Morning Star sued the state last July in Colusa County Superior Court, arguing that it had informed water board staff that it was expanding the ponds.

In its written decision rescinding the fine, the state board said Morning Star’s lawsuit alerted the board to the existence of certain documents that hadn’t been presented during the administrative hearing last year, when the fine was imposed.

Castaños said the documents made clear that Morning Star had notified the water board’s staff about the expansion.

Patrick Pulupa, a lawyer for the water board, said the agency is continuing to examine the amount of wastewater being discharged from the Colusa County plant and the impact it’s having on groundwater quality. The board doesn’t think it got “a full accounting” of the situation and wants to “make sure all of their operations are accurately cataloged and regulated,” Pulupa said.

Rufer is a prominent patron of libertarian causes and contributed $90,000 to a group that fought unsuccessfully to block the city of Sacramento’s $255 million public subsidy for Golden 1 Center. He said he opposed the idea of public subsidies for private projects like a basketball arena.

Rufer said he spent at least $800,000 in legal and engineering fees to fight the state’s fine. He said it was worth it to clear his company’s name.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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