Tulare County works to fend off another pistachio lawsuit

Tulare County backs Setton Pistachios expansion to help reduce pungent odor despite CRLA lawsuit

TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County handed ARO Pistachios a sizable win when Wonderful Pistachios challenged the validity of their county authorized building permits in September. Now a second law suit is coming down the pike to stifle yet another Terra Bella pistachio farming company.

The small farmworker town of Terra Bella in the southern part of Tulare County has just 780 households, 87% are Latino. The community has several ag-based industries including the region’s only lumber mill, four citrus packing houses, a fertilizer maker and the Setton Pistachios nut processing plant – all clustered in the industrial part of town.

By far the largest employer in town is family-owned Setton Farms who employs 750 full-time employees which grows to 1,000 during the harvest. Which is happening right now. This year the alternate bearing crop is huge and Setton expects to process 50% more pounds than last year. The highest level ever.

But the sweet smell of money being made is an onerous stench to nearby community members. Residents have long complained about a persistent fly problem associated with the odor. Families have said they could not open windows or go outside. As a result the town’s businesses have suffered. The issue has been ongoing for several years but is worse during harvest processing.

Setton says they can fix it by improving their wastewater treatment process and piping recycled waste water further outside the city. This happens in many ag processing plants in Valley cities who ship water out of town under the close eye of the Central Valley Regional Water Board.

But a citizens group in town – Terra Bella Voice for Change – says the community has suffered for years and with the help of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a legal counsel organization, they have sued the County of Tulare for permitting a planned Setton expansion project without adequate environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The suit was filed on Sept. 18.

Yes, it is another pistachio lawsuit against Tulare County. The first legal action was brought by ag giant Wonderful trying to void a permit granted to rival Terra Bella area pistachio plant, ARO.

Days before the county approved the expansion permit for Setton, that includes improvements in the handling of their wastewater, Setton signed a Cease and Desist Order Aug 13 with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board requiring the company to fix the odor problem once and for all – prohibiting Setton from creating an odor nuisance that impacts the community.

Cease and desist

If Setton violates this order, it can be fined up to $10,000 per day, per violation, and may lose its wastewater discharge permit. The community group, Terra Bella Voices for Change, celebrated their efforts as a victory.

Despite this water board victory, their attorneys from CRLA were adamant in opposing Setton’s expansion plan filed with the county even though that plan includes fixes for the odor problem. True to form CRLA also sided with Wonderful in their action against ARO, presumably as an effort to halt ag business expansion.

A county staff report explains their view of the issue.

“In November 2019, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella applied for an Authority to Construct Permit (ATC) application with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. These building permits are required in order to implement necessary odor reducing corrective measures at Setton’s plant in Terra Bella. To date, the ATC permits have not been approved by the Valley Air District. These corrective measures are part of a requirement imposed upon Setton to resolve odor issues that were present in prior year’s harvests.”

The county added, “Setton has fulfilled all county permitting and entitlement requirements. The county has approved an Addendum…for the 2015 Community Plan of Terra Bella which reaffirmed that there would be no additional environmental impacts from the construction as a result of the ATC permits. These proposed uses are consistent with the existing zoning for this part of Tulare County. The County has conducted the required CEQA analysis necessary for the ATC permits. All of these measures are taken in order to help correct the odor concerns. For these reasons, a letter of support is being considered (to the Air Board) as the County believes Setton to have met all the necessary requirements to move forward.”

Not following CEQA?

Interestingly, the argument that the county did not study impacts properly was recently been made by Wonderful Pistachios who sued Tulare County with the aim to stop another Terra Bella nut company from expanding.  Wonderful had successfully stopped the same owner in Fresno County last year but their request to void the ARO permit did not convince the Tulare County Superior Court who ruled in early September.

In that case CRLA also opposed the ARO permit using the same argument: that Tulare County had not followed proper CEQA procedure. Tulare County insists they followed the same process that was used in a number of Wonderful projects approved in Tulare County in recent years.

Waiting for the air board

To date the Valley Air Board has not yet approved Setton’s permits and the county has urged them in a Sept. 22 letter to follow through and approve them.

CEO of Setton, Lee Cohen says he expects the air board to approve them “any day now” and is optimistic they will be approved.

“We are operating full bore harvesting and processing our current crop and using some new technology and strategies for the past four months that reduce the odors,” he maintained. “This is a problem that is industry-wide and engineering firms in the Valley are busy working on different ways to process ag wastewater.”

He says Setton has a meeting in November with all the players to go over what Cohen says has been a successful trial period using the new technology.

Cohen notes the company has decided to pipe more wastewater into their orchards that will be beneficial in a number of ways, replenishing groundwater, reducing odor impacts at a wastewater reservoir in town and adding nutrients to the soil in the orchards. He adds that orchard soil better absorbs the wastewater with decreased odor impacts. He states that the issue “has been a challenge” and the experience “has been a learning curve for us.”

Setton’s permit application includes expansion of company land available for wastewater application from 409 acres to 892 acres.

The county staff report adds, “The project does not contemplate increases in discharge of process water from the expanded facility. The project does not include modifications to wastewater ponds that now receive water from the facility. But to decrease the potential of existing ponds to cause ‘objectionable’ odors, the project will construct a pipeline to significantly increase the land area for the wastewater and therefore reduce the amount of wastewater stored in the existing ponds.”

Still the CRLA lawsuit wants a Tulare County Superior Court judge to cancel the county approved permit including the planned pipeline that is being used to reduce odors in the town.

Canceling a permit during harvest may be a lot to swallow for a judge in Tulare County. The trade group American Pistachio Growers commenting on the timing of the Wonderful lawsuit countered that “once pistachios are harvested, they must be hulled and dried within 24 hours, otherwise quality degradation occurs. Without the expansion of the ARO Pistachios facility, this would put potentially 100’s of farmers at risk for the timely processing of their commodity.”

The county points out that Setton has contributed to the wellbeing of the small town through the building of parks and a proposed school. They have donated several infrastructure improvements to the community of Terra Bella, such as curbs, gutters, sidewalks, a crosswalk, a bus stop and storm drainage improvements.

As well, Setton recently announced that next year the Setton Academy will open to high school grads from Terra Bella to learn ag automation basics and robotics in a lab setting for a chance to gain higher skills that should be good for their future. The school will open next summer.

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