Environment

He wanted Trump’s EPA chief to testify for him. Here’s what the judge said

California farmer fights US in court

John Duarte's case is being watched by farmers, conservatives nationwide.
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John Duarte's case is being watched by farmers, conservatives nationwide.

California farmer John Duarte, fighting a multimilllion-dollar fine in a closely watched environmental case, lost his bid Friday to have the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testify in Sacramento on his behalf.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller, ruling in a pretrial hearing, said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt won’t be called as a witness.

Pruitt “has no particular knowledge of this case, no relevant knowledge,” she said. The judge did say she might reconsider her decision during the trial, which is set to begin in mid-August.

The federal government is seeking a $2.8 million fine against Duarte for “deep ripping” a farm field in Tehama County, saying he damaged fragile wetlands in violation of the Clean Water Act. Federal officials also want Duarte to restore the wetlands and conduct other mitigation, which could cost him millions more.

Duarte says his plowing the field did no harm to the wetlands. His case has become a major cause among farmers, conservatives and property-rights activists.

Last summer, Mueller ruled against Duarte, saying his plowing activities violated the Clean Water Act. The trial in August in U.S. District Court in Sacramento will cover the penalties he should be assessed.

Pruitt briefly mentioned the case during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing in January, agreeing with Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s argument that farmers shouldn’t be punished for “ordinary farming practices.”

Duarte’s lawyers then put Pruitt on their list of prospective witnesses. Federal lawyers said bringing in a high-level administration official to testify would be “untenable” and persuaded Mueller it would make no sense to bring the EPA administrator to Sacramento.

The judge said Pruitt’s thoughts about the Duarte case are “a policy position, and a political position” and don’t belong in the trial.

Duarte and his lawyers said they were disappointed with Mueller’s ruling, saying Pruitt’s testimony would be relevant.

“The EPA chief has already stated the silliness of this prosecution,” Duarte said outside the courtroom.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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