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La Cuchara employees caught on camera dumping tomatoes in Jones Falls

Woodberry restaurant La Cuchara, known for its Basque fare, was caught on camera dumping leftover tomatoes into the Jones Falls watershed Sunday after its annual Tomatina festival, a recreation of the Spanish event in which people throw tomatoes at one another each August.

Towson resident Eduardo Bonefont sent pictures and video of people wearing red La Cuchara shirts disposing of buckets of tomatoes in the Jones Falls to The Baltimore Sun via email Tuesday morning. One photo showed a large pile of tomatoes on the ground, with some spilling into the water.

His wife, Wendy Bonefont, who also witnessed the dumping, said the two had been looking for something to do Sunday, when they spotted the Tomatina festival. After seeing that it was almost over, they decided to leave and spotted the employees dumping the fruits over a bridge. They were disturbed and decided to get footage, she said.

“As boaters and conscientious environmentalists … we were just shocked to see that,” she said, especially with the many clean-up initiatives for the Inner Harbor.

“They're considered one of the best restaurants in Baltimore, and their establishment is dumping tomatoes back in the creek,” she added. “It was really absurd.”

Ben Lefenfeld, La Cuchara’s general manager, admitted that employees dumped leftover tomatoes in the Jones Falls after the festival, and that they were compelled to do so after someone else filled their dumpster with trash, leaving no room to dispose of the tomatoes.

“We did not feel it was an issue to dump it into the Jones Falls because it was tomatoes,” Lefenfeld said, adding that he has read that tomatoes can be used as fish food and that all other garbage was properly disposed of.

But a spokesman for the Department of Public Works stated in an email to The Baltimore Sun that the tomato dumping was illegal and a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website states that the Clean Water Act has “made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.”

“The simple way of stating it is nothing should be dumped into any City waterway,” the Public Works spokesman stated. “Food waste should be disposed of properly, either in the trash or a compost pile.”

Lefenfeld still questioned whether tomatoes would be considered a pollutant, and noted that the restaurant works with stream clean-up teams, who also host happy hours at the restaurant.

Bonefont thinks the restaurant’s response has been irresponsible.

Bonefont said she called the police and tried filing a police report online, but got frustrated with the system. She and her husband then decided they would contact news outlets in hopes that someone would take action.

“Who knows what else they’re dumping back there? I mean, that’s not what a restaurant does,” Bonefont said.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking those tomatoes are going to do. Just disappear? No,” she said, adding that it was around 100 degrees the day of the festival. “It’s going to turn into rat infestation, flies and disease, and it’s going to float down into the Bay.”

bbritto@baltsun.com

twitter.com/brittanybritto

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