In the 30 years Lester Richman has owned his 320-acre ranch in Malibu's Encinal Canyon, he says he has never been accused of running afoul of the law--until now.
State officials have accused him of allowing the dumping of potentially hazardous wastes on his property, which, they say, may pose a threat to drinking water in the area. The officials have ordered him to pay civil penalties of $120,000 by Friday.
Richman, who says he will appeal the action of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, dismisses the accusations as nonsense.
"I'm an innocent victim of a spiteful bureaucracy," he said. "They're making me out to be the environmental criminal of the century."
Officials of the water agency acknowledge there is no evidence that the alleged dumping has damaged the water supply, but say the unusual enforcement action was necessary because Richman refused to cooperate with them.
"We're not hitting him over the head with a sledgehammer," said Robert P. Ghirelli, the water board's executive officer. "He has been given every opportunity to cooperate so as to resolve the matter, and he has chosen not to do so."
But the 77-year-old lawyer and rancher from Santa Barbara denies that he has been uncooperative.
Richman uses his Juma Ranch--in the Santa Monica Mountains about five miles from the Pacific Ocean--as a weekend and holiday retreat. His problems began a year ago after an anonymous tipster complained that a caretaker at the ranch had been admitting trucks loaded with waste materials onto the property, and that the trucks were empty when they left.
Richman, who for many years operated a commercial tree farm on the property before starting a cattle ranch there, said the trucks contained either firewood or cow manure, used as fertilizer.
State officials, who visited the ranch last December, said part of it had become a burial ground for discarded washing machines, refrigerators, degreasing tanks and other miscellaneous metal objects.
Investigators said several acres near a small pond had been used as a dump for hundreds of 55-gallon gasoline drums and heavy equipment, including street sweepers, earth-moving equipment, tank cars, flatbed trucks and rusted automobiles.
Richman called the debris "the normal junk you collect over the years on a ranch. As for the gas drums, we used to get our fuel in them, but that hasn't happened in 15 years. There's certainly been no toxic dumping up there."
Near one of the vehicles, investigators said they discovered potentially hazardous wastes lying atop some unprotected soil, and that several old batteries on some of the vehicles appeared to have leaked.
"What they're talking about is some oil and grease that had leaked out of the crankcase of an old truck," Richman said. "It was a spot 30 inches wide and had soaked into the soil maybe an inch. Now you tell me how that's going to damage an aquifer that's 300 feet deep?"
In May, the agency ordered Richman to submit a plan to remove the wastes and debris. It also required him to pay to have tests conducted, at an estimated cost of $10,000, to see what, if any, damage had been caused to the water table.
Richman hauled away the debris and converted the area where it had been stored to grazing land for his cattle. Agency officials said the removal, and his plowing of the site, violated the terms of its cleanup and abatement order, and accused Richman of concealing evidence.
Meanwhile, Richman refused to have the tests done, saying it was unreasonable for the agency to saddle a private landowner with expensive drilling costs when no violation had been proven.
In August, the nine-member water board, ruling against its staff's recommendation, agreed, and directed the agency to conduct the testing.
But the matter was not settled.
Agency officials say that, despite their having obtained a court order, Richman refused to allow them onto the property to complete the tests. After being told that Richman had reneged on his promise to cooperate, the water board on Dec. 3 increased to $120,000 a $24,000 civil penalty it had earlier levied against him after he failed to meet the agency's deadline to remedy the problem.
Richman, who suffered a mild stroke a week before the hearing and was unable to attend, likened the board's decision to "a lynching."
"It looks like they see a little guy they can kick around, and have somehow confused me for a big, polluting oil company," he said.
The board, some of whose members were upset that Richman did not send a representative to the hearing in his absence, turned down his written request for a postponement.
"The feeling was that we had really bent over backward in order to be fair to this person, and that, based on everything we knew about the matter, he had simply not been cooperative," board chairman Charles C. Vernon said.
However, Richman offers a different view of the events that led to the board's decision.