In a last-ditch effort to keep the San Benito Foods tomato cannery operating, parent company Neil Jones Foods and the city of Hollister are in negotiations that involve the company offering a “good faith payment,” according to interim City Manager Brett Miller. A meeting is expected to take place Aug. 10. If an agreement is reached, Miller said it would then go to the City Council on Aug. 17.
The cannery was recently ordered to halt operations by Aug. 8 unless it paid $2.5 million owed to the city. It employs 90 workers year-round and as many as 445 during peak summer season.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez described the agreement as something the two parties have been talking about for years.
“We just want a guarantee that they’re going to clean up the sludge from the ponds,” he said by phone Aug. 6, referring to the removal of sludge from pond #2 at the city’s industrial wastewater treatment plant. The cannery uses the pond to dispose of its wastewater. “They can do it through a bond or putting up property as collateral. We just want to assure somebody is going to pay it other than the taxpayer.”
Velazquez also said the city wants assurance that the cannery is following Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board rules so the city will no longer be fined because the water discharges are not meeting state standards.
“We want guarantees in writing and make sure they can back it up, and we’ll keep working with them,” Velazquez said. “We’ll be happy to do the cleanup, but we need a guarantee that they will pay the cost of us doing it for them.”
At an Aug. 5 hearing, Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez said San Benito Foods did not prove it would be irreparably harmed by paying the $2.5 million operations fee, which the company said it could not do. Velazquez said that’s “the cost of doing business.”
“Water needs to be treated so it doesn’t contaminate our water table and they need to do that,” he said. “That’s why the water district came up with these rules; otherwise, people would just be dumping it in the river like they did back in the 50s. They’ve been warned for several years and it needs to be done.”
Velazquez said he did not know what the agreement would include, but said they do need to sign it. Prior to the lawsuit, the city had not told the cannery it had to pay $2.5 million up front. He said in negotiations that the city was willing to take half and asked the company to put up property as collateral for the other half.
“It’s never been about the cash up front, it’s about a commitment to their community,” Velazquez said. “They’ve been here a long time and it’s their community too.”
Jorge Valenzuela, Teamsters Local Union No. 890 representative, and David Weiland, attorney for Neil Jones Foods, were not immediately available for comment.