Los Banos dairyman and school board trustee Dennis Areias pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor count of unlawful dumping of hazardous waste into state waterways.
As a result, Areias was placed on three years of informal probation and will need to pay a $3,500 fine, $19,000 enhanced fine and $2,161.73 in restitution. he also will need to complete 60 hours of community service.
A felony count of illegal dumping was dropped as a result of Areias’ admission.
But Areias, who claims he pumped water off his property in February to save his heifers from torrential rain waters that flooded the corral last winter, said the fines are excessive, and that he was pushed into a corner by state regulations and attorneys.
“I got railroaded,” Areias said, claiming he was paying more per hour for legal fees than he nets in two days with his farm. “It’s highway robbery. What they did to me today, I should have just let all 18 heifers die. It would have cost less money than what I’ll be paying.”
Areias said he decided to plead guilty to avoid the cost of a trial.
Investigators with the Department of Fish and Wildlife inspected a drainage ditch across Areias’ heifer corral on Feb. 15 and found evidence of illegal dumping following a tip that Areias was pumping cow waste into the dry ditch across Henry Miller Road, near the intersection with Box Car Road, according to reports.
Bob Nichols, a Merced County special deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said Areias directed his employee and co-defendant John Soares to pump water containing cow waste from his heifer corral into the ditch, which is considered a state waterway.
Soares on Wednesday pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors related to the dumping. The admission could have led to a year in county jail, but Soares’ pleas weren’t accepted by Merced County Judge John Kirihara to give Soares a chance to clear the charges by serving 10 hours of community service.
The dumping of up to 720,000 gallons of the water and cow waste mixture, Nichols said, was a large enough quantity to harm fish and plant life, according to tests conducted at the site of the dumping.
“I didn’t harm a single fish,” Areias said, noting that the actual amount of water he dumped in the drainage ditch was closer to about 300,000 gallons, and that it didn’t travel far enough down the line to enter Salt Slough or the San Joaquin River.
Areias also criticized the state investigators for not testing samples in the ditch further downstream.
Although the waste didn’t physically enter water reservoirs, Nichols said it contained a high ammonia concentration that prevents the growth of important microorganisms that eventually find their way to canals and waterways with fish.
“Fish feed on microbiotic creatures,” he said. “Putting sewage with a high ammonia concentration into the ditch kills the microbiotic creatures, which ultimately has an effect on the fish population.”
Areias said he didn’t believe that explanation, claiming it was another excuse for state officials to squeeze local dairy farmers by imposing unnecessary fines and regulations.
Nichols said at the time of the dumping, investigation reports by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife determined Areias had didn’t have proper facilities to capture rainwater of that magnitude, and that pre-planning could have prevented the whole situation.
However, the rainfall last winter was unprecedented, Areias said, claiming he was properly following guidelines for a heifer raising facility at the time.
Areias said he has made improvements to his corral since the dumping - costing about $7,500 - to prevent the situation from repeating. That includes raising the bottom of the corral by eight to 10 inches and digging large drains parallel to Henry Miller Road to store excess water.
“This won’t be able to happen again,” Areias said.
That effort, along with the weather considerations leading to Areias’ predicament with his heifers, factored in to prosecutors’ decision to drop the felony charge, Nichols said.
“He made efforts to recover (the waste water),” Nichols said, noting that the dumping was still “egregious conduct” considering Areias did it in the darkness of night, and because he failed to notify any federal, state and proper local regulatory agencies about the dumping.
The improvements are a part of the plea agreement with Areias, Nichols said.
However, Areias still considered the fines and his treatment by state agencies to be unfair and targeted.
“We talk about bullying at the school district all the time and this is a perfect example of it,” Areias said. “(Nichols) can say what he wants, but I didn’t harm a fish.”
Areias and Soares are scheduled back in court Dec. 12, 2018, to report they completed their community service requirements.