Los Banos dairy farmer and school board member Dennis Areias, and his farm worker, are being charged with dumping more than 300,000 gallons of cow waste into state waterways.
Areias pleaded not guilty Friday in Merced Superior Court to one count of discharging hazardous waste and a misdemeanor count of depositing it in state waterways.
Areias told the Los Banos Enterprise that a California Department of Fish and Wildlife report that led to the felony charge isn’t telling the full story. He claimed he obtained permission for the dumping to save his cows from illness and death due to torrential rainwaters last winter.
According to a CDFW investigation report, someone on Feb. 15 reported two discharges of dairy waste off the dairy farm and into a ditch connecting to Salt Slough, which flows into the San Joaquin River.
CDFW Warden Chris Giertych arrived at Box Car Road and Henry Miller Road, near a dairy feed on Areias’ farm, and examined a dirt ditch along the north side of Henry Miller, reports state.
“The ditch water was a dark brown, had a foul cow waste smell to it and had a very thick consistency when I tossed rocks in it,” Giertych reported.
Giertych and CDFW Lt. Troy Bruce followed the canal to the Los Banos Wildlife Area, where they reported seeing bent over grass that was brown in color, and “a large amount of cow discharge” in three sections of the canal. They estimated the amount of waste at about 108,000 gallons.
When investigators contacted Areias by phone, he told them he knew they were calling about him putting cow waste in the canal, and that he knew it was illegal, according to the reports. Areias also reportedly accepted blame, and said that he had one of his workers, John Soares, set up a hydraulic pump to pump cow waste from his feed lot into the ditch at night so no one could see, according to reports.
Soares also pleaded not guilty to the same charges in Merced Superior Court on Friday.
When confronted by investigators, Soares said he pumped the waste for about two hours during three nights. He also told them he didn’t know dumping into the canal was illegal.
Based on the pump, investigators estimated between 360,000 and 720,000 gallons of waste was pumped into the ditch, reports state.
CDFW tests from water samples collected on Feb. 15 around the area of Box Car Road and Henry Miller Road concluded that levels of ammonia and sediment were high enough to harm fish populations, according to reports.
Areias told the Los Banos Enterprise and Merced Sun-Star that the reports leave out key information and misrepresent what he was doing.
Areias said more than 20 inches of rain over the winter mixed in with cow waste on his property and was endangering his heifers. So he asked neighboring landowners across the street if he can pump the water into the ditch.
“I got permission,” Areias said, adding that he also received permission from the San Luis Canal Company, a “private mutual water company” that serves farmlands between Los Banos and Dos Palos, according to its website.
Areias said the water company allowed him to pump the water in the canal on the conditions he asks for permission from the landowner, the drain doesn’t have any water at the time, and that pumping would cease if it passed the landowner’s property, which spanned 2.5 miles of the canal, before it drains into Salt Slough.
Areias shared with the Sun-Star an email from San Luis Canal Company General Manager Chase Hurley acknowledging the agreement.
The water flow didn’t pass 2.5 miles, Areias said, adding that he pumped the water back into his corral after he removed the heifers to safety.
“I still had four heifers end up dying,” Areias said.
Areias also criticized the water samples tested by CDFW, noting that they tested the site of the dumping, but not further downstream.
“With everything I do with the kids, I do with 4H and FFA, I never would have allowed (the heifers to die),” Areias said, reflecting on his financial and material support for local farming education programs.
Areias said he didn’t know why state authorities were pursuing felony charges. And while he said he didn’t harm any wildlife with the dumping, he was willing to pay any fine or reimburse for cleanup.
“It’s sad ... what they’re doing to farming and dairy,” Areias said. “They’re just squeezing us and squeezing us, trying to weed us out of business.”
CDFW officials didn’t immediately return phone calls requesting comment Wednesday.
Taylor Rhodes, a circuit prosecutor who Merced County District Attorney’s officials said was handling the case, also couldn’t be reached Wednesday.
Areias is the second Los Banos school board member to be charged with a felony in 15 months. Former trustee and ex-mayor of Los Banos Tommy Jones was charged last year with bribing another trustee to award a construction manager contract to local builder Greg Opinski.
Jones and Opinski have pleaded not guilty and are out of custody awaiting a trial date of Feb. 27.
Areias’ next hearing on the dumping charge is Dec. 13. Areias said he and his attorney, Rosalinda Ruppel of Ripon, will be working with Rhodes on a resolution.