MODESTO -- Stanislaus Food Products Co. is suing Modesto for more than $6 million, claiming that's how much the city has overcharged the tomato cannery in sewer fees.
In a lawsuit filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court, the cannery says the city charges it for sewer services it does not use, in violation of state law and the state Constitution.
The cannery claims that its sewer bills include some of the operating costs of the city's two sewer treatment facilities, even though the cannery's rinse water is not treated at those facilities.
Instead, the city diverts the as-much-as 8 million gallons of water the cannery uses daily to rinse tomatoes before canning them. The rinse water goes to the city's cannery segregation line, where it is piped to a 2,700-acre ranch on Jennings Road owned by the city. The lawsuit claims that the rinse water is not treated and is used as irrigation water.
"Obviously, it costs money to get there (to the ranch), and we're willing to pay our fair share," said Patrick Riddle, one of the attorneys representing the cannery. "But what we are saying is we don't use the treatment plants."
Riddle said the rinse water is the only production waste water the cannery produces. Modesto put the cannery segregation line into operation in 1999, according to the lawsuit.
Riddle said several other Modesto canneries use the cannery segregation line, although Stanislaus Food is the biggest producer of waste water. He said during peak daily production in the summer, the canneries produce 18 million gallons of waste water.
Lawsuit seeks four years worth of refunds
Stanislaus Food is seeking refunds of overcharges for four years, plus overcharges while the lawsuit is pending. It estimates that amount at more than $6 million, according to the lawsuit.
City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood wrote in an e-mail that the sewer rates charged to Stanislaus Food and others were adopted by the City Council in 2007 after a comprehensive rate study. She added that the rates are reviewed annually.
Wood said it is the city's position that what it charges Stanislaus Food is reasonable and appropriate given the volume of waste it produces and the costs to the city.
"Since being served with the complaint over a year ago," Alcala Wood wrote, "the city has worked diligently to meet with representatives from Stanislaus Food and their attorney to respond to inquiries and review documents with them in an ongoing effort to resolve this complaint."
Stanislaus Food, which has operated in Modesto for decades, produces canned tomatoes and sauces for Italian restaurants and pizzerias throughout North America, according to its Web site.
In addition to Stanislaus Food, Stanislaus Partners is suing Modesto. Stanislaus Food leases the D Street cannery it operates from Stanislaus Partners, which owns the site.
The lawsuit was filed in October 2011. City Council members met in closed session regarding the lawsuit at their Nov. 13 meeting. There is a settlement conference scheduled for March 18, and the matter is scheduled for trial April 2.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.