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California regulators identify violations after Rodney Strong wine spill, but no fine yet

One of the largest wine spills in Sonoma County history this year violated federal and state clean water laws, according to California officials, who are still deciding whether an accident at a Healdsburg winery that emptied a 100,000-gallon tank and polluted the Russian River with red wine will result in any fines.

In a notice issued Tuesday, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board outlined three discharge violations stemming from the Jan. 22 spill at Rodney Strong Vineyards, where a racking door at the bottom of a large stainless-steel storage tank burst open, flooding the Old Redwood Highway facility with a torrent of cabernet sauvignon.

The spill, at approximately 97,000 gallons, overwhelmed the facility’s drainage systems, staining the grounds as it poured into nearby Reiman Creek and eventually into the Russian River. Winery officials told state investigators they recovered as much as half of the wine by using a trash pump to temporarily impound the creek, while two vacuum trucks were used to siphon wine into a wastewater pond.

But enough wine made it downstream ― regulators and the winery have not said how much ― that it could be detected in aerial photos of the Russian River taken by the county’s Sheriff’s Office helicopter crew.

This week’s notice is either the first step in a more prolonged enforcement action, or it could be the final step should the agency decline to proceed, said Charles Reed, a supervisor with the Santa Rosa-based water board.

Under state statutes, Rodney Strong could face fines of either $10 per 1,000 gallons that were not contained, or $10,000 for each day the violation occurred.

The agency will decide at an upcoming meeting if it wants to pursue that level of enforcement, Reed said.

“The ball is in our court,” he said. “You look at volume, culpability, the response you get from the discharger (Rodney Strong). A lot of thought goes into those calculations and factors that affect the final liability ― if we were to go in that direction.”

Rodney Strong spokesman Chris O’Gorman declined an interview Wednesday but said in an email that the company had been working closely with water quality regulators and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife during their investigations.

Fish and Wildlife officials could not be reached Wednesday to provide an update on the scope or status of their investigation. There were no signs of fish kill, regulators found, although numerous dead earthworms were spotted during the initial inspection.

Water board officials also ordered Rodney Strong to enact new procedures to minimize leaks and spills. O’Gorman said that work was underway.

“In the aftermath of the spill, we hired an outside engineering firm to help us evaluate the circumstances and implement measures to prevent any future such occurrences, and thereby further protect our local waterways,” he said. “This process is ongoing.”

Environmental samples collected the day after the spill showed a variety of associated impacts, including higher levels of dissolved minerals, oil and grease, and decomposed organic material, the water board found.

The test results showed the spill did not cause the water to exceed health standards. However, regulators noted that since samples were collected more than 24 hours after the accident, the results didn’t necessarily reflect the full scale of any environmental damage.

Higher flows in the river that day, after recent rains, may have also helped dilute wine, potentially minimizing the harm to aquatic wildlife, Reed said.

You can read the violation notice here.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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