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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Modesto Accused of Bilking Tomato Processor

MODESTO, Calif. (CN) - A tomato processor wants the city of Modesto to reimburse it for more than $6 million in sewer and water-treatment facility charges because the city discovered uses for the water in its untreated form and has been benefiting from that discovery for over a decade.

After discovering that cannery wastewater can be applied directly to fields, Modesto built a dedicated sewer line to a city-owned ranch 11 years ago from Stanislaus Food Products Co. and Stanislaus Partners, according to the complaint.

The city has allegedly known since 1994 that wastewater facilities do need to treat the large volume of water used to rinse tomatoes before applying it directly to land. Modesto built a segregated pipeline from the cannery to transport the rinse water for application at a city-owned, 2,700-acre ranch leased by a third party, according to the complaint. The pipeline went into service in 1999.

"By diverting plaintiffs' rinse water, the city substantially increased capacity at its treatment plant, which produced an immediate capital expenditure savings of $45 million dollars by not having to expand its primary and/or its secondary treatment facilities," according to the complaint. "By avoiding treatment of the cannery wastewater, the city has also saved itself millions of dollars in treatment costs,"

But despite the cost-effective recycling plan, Modesto allegedly charges Stanislaus Food Products unfair sewer rates to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the primary and secondary treatment facilities. Over the years, those charges have amounted to more than $6 million, according to the complaint.

Stanislaus claims that Modesto's scheme violates the California Constitution, which mandates that property owners and users be charged no more than the cost of services rendered to them by municipalities. The constitutional amendment, passed by voters as Proposition 218 in 1996, applies to both water and sewer services. "Plaintiffs should not be charged for primary and secondary wastewater treatment that it does not receive for wastewater which is diverted" to the segregated pipeline and ultimately sold untreated by the city for ranch use, the suit alleges.

Stanislaus is represented by Thomas Hiltachk with Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk in Sacramento.

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