California wine giant Beringer has been hit with a lawsuit accusing it of polluting the Russian River, which runs through Sonoma County.

The lawsuit, lodged by environmental group Northern California River Watch in a San Francisco federal court, claims Beringer – part of Australian-owned Foster’s Group – is in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

According to the group, industrial run-off is seeping into the river from the winery’s facilities during times of heavy rain because Beringer’s waste-water ponds, which lie adjacent to the Russian River, are unlined. The group further claims the winery discharges storm water containing pollutants, as well as non-storm-water pollutants, into the Russian River. It also claims Beringer lacks appropriate permits allowing certain types of controlled discharge into the river. River Watch is attempting to force Beringer to pay fines of US$27,500 a day for each violation.

Jim Watkins, Beringer Americas president said, ‘We vigorously deny these charges. Sensitivity to the environment is very important to us and we are in full compliance with the law and have all the necessary permits.’

Toben Dilworth, program manager for Northern California River Watch, said River Watch was initially notified about the situation by members of the public. He said he had approached Beringer to discuss the suit.

He told decanter.com, ‘River Watch prefers cooperation over litigation. During the 60-day notice period, we invited Beringer to meet with us and discuss our concerns in hopes that a resolution could be found without the need to litigate. They have indicated that they are not interested in pursuing such a course.’

Watkins said, ‘We have asked River Watch to specify their allegations and they have not yet responded as they are obliged to do by law.’ He said he felt he could not comment on how Beringer plans to contest the lawsuit.

This is not the first time Beringer has come into conflict with environmentalists. In April 2002 environmental lobbying group the Sierra Club threatened to sue the company over its plans to build a half-million square meter winery and expand plantings on 46ha of what it called ’emerging and historic’ wetlands.

According to John Stephens of the Napa Sierra Club, this expansion threatens the environment and an endangered species, the vernal pool fairy shrimp.

‘We sued but the judge found in favor of Beringer. We are appealing and should know something in about 10 months,’ he said. Until the appeal is heard, Beringer’s expansion plans are on hold.

Written by Kerin O’Keefe7May 2003