It took just three minutes for the Hollister City Council to unanimously approve a five-year lease agreement with Neil Jones Food Company, parent company of the San Benito Foods (SBF) tomato cannery, during a special meeting on March 29. The lease will permit San Benito Foods to operate and maintain the city’s industrial wastewater facility pond #1 and any percolation ponds used during the treatment process from the company’s upcoming tomato canning season, which runs from June 1-Nov. 1.
The lease was necessary because on Nov. 16, the council approved a resolution to remove the city from wastewater responsibility for the cannery and terminated the city’s industrial waste discharge permit with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Three separate meetings were required to iron out details of the lease agreement. The council approved the agreement at its March 15 meeting, but wanted SBF to remove 50% of the sludge from the wastewater pond the first year and eventually as much as 18,000 dry tons accumulated over the years. The council was also concerned about whether the city might be held liable for environmental violations or removing the sludge despite the lease. Through a consultant, San Benito Foods argued that no matter whether the company left the city or shut down operations, it would still be liable.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez wanted assurance the city would not end up being responsible for any fines imposed by the regional water board or other government entities. He wanted the contract language to say the cannery would remove as much sludge as possible over the course of the lease. He also wanted to know if the sludge would continue to be removed beyond the scope of the lease.
Keri Wagner, a consultant with the Wallace Group, tried to assure the council that SBF was invested in a long-term commitment—it even asked for a longer lease—and that the cannery would continue to remove sludge and recognized it was now responsible for any violations. Because of the long history of incidents and competing lawsuits, Velazquez was unsure if the company would hold to the letter of the agreement.
Councilman Rolan Resendiz said there was no language in the agreement that assured there would not be an odor problem and asked if the city was protected in case the company was out of compliance with water restrictions. Wagner said even if the city was still responsible there was no guarantee there would be no odors, but said the agreement would hold the company responsible. She said the nature of wastewater plants made it impossible to guarantee odor control.
Wagner said that San Benito Foods is focused on upgrades at pond #1 and the canning facility on Sally Street in Hollister, and is not thinking about sludge removal beyond the canning season. She added that after the season the company will start concentrating on what may be needed for the coming years.
Sam Humphrey, plant manager at the tomato cannery, told BenitoLink the company is pleased with the five-year lease.
“The agreement is for five years, with two five-year options or a total of 15 years,” he said. “We continue to reinvest in our facilities to ensure San Benito Foods is operating in Hollister for many years to come. We are looking forward to a successful 2021 tomato season.”
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