Ag chief backs away from funding offer

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Dairy cows eat silage at Big Island Dairy in Ookala in this file photo.

Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s director is no longer offering to help pay for expanding environmental quality tests near a dairy farm accused of polluting gulches in Ookala.

Scott Enright told residents at a public meeting last March that he would use his contingency funds to support follow-up inspections or additional soil and water tests following complaints.

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He’s since backed away from much of that offer, citing the lawsuit filed by a group of residents that accuses Big Island Dairy of violating the federal Clean Water Act. Enright said he’s still willing to support oversight efforts done by the state Department of Health, though a spokeswoman said that department is not planning any more water quality tests at this time.

Enright said that decision was based on advice from state attorneys and that he thinks those tests, which would have included monitoring of marine waters for pollution, will be done as part of the lawsuit anyway. The department leases state land to the dairy.

“It’s gotten complicated with the legal action, is the short of it,” he told the Tribune-Herald earlier this month.

Charlene Nishida, an Ookala resident and board member of Kupale Ooakla, which filed the lawsuit, didn’t buy that argument and said Enright was breaking his promise to the community.

“We’re incredibly disappointed in Scott Enright and his lack of fulfilling any of the promises he made in person and shook hands on at that meeting,” she said.

The 2,500-acre dairy is located mauka of the village on steep terrain. The lawsuit alleges wastewater is oversprayed on the fields, causing runoff into nearby gulches and stream beds, including one that goes through town.

Following complaints, DOH fined the dairy $25,000 in May for unlawful discharge of wastewater. Residents involved in the lawsuit say the problem goes beyond that one incident.

DOH confirmed earlier discharges in 2014 but took no action.

Despite the fine, Enright said DOH has not found the dairy to “be a bad actor” because it didn’t find additional discharges during a follow-up inspection.

“I’d make the contention they are good farmers,” he said. “They do need to work on the odor issue.”

Nishida said she found that “completely perplexing because the state has said that they have polluted.”

She said the lawsuit was filed last year because the group doesn’t think the state is doing enough oversight and that the problems haven’t been addressed.

“(The state) is going full speed ahead with large agricultural business that it’s not monitoring in a way that’s providing balance between the production of agriculture activities and the well-being of the community,” Nishida said. “This situation really shines a flashlight on the problem and how extensive the problem is.”

Since the lawsuit, the dairy stopped growing corn on the property and planted grass to reduce erosion and runoff. Corn is grown elsewhere on the Hamakua Coast as cattle feed for the dairy.

Wastewater is sprayed over the fields as a fertilizer, a common practice for dairies.

Meanwhile, DOH says the dairy has installed a new wastewater treatment plant for its milking and bottling facility, and is awaiting final inspection.

The plant is designed to handle a flow of 10,000 gallons a day, said Janice Okubo, DOH spokeswoman, in an email.

She said waste will enter an “equalization basin” and be treated with a dissolved air flotation unit followed by a biological secondary treatment.

Okubo said the department’s clean water branch will conduct periodic unannounced inspections as part of its “ongoing enforcement oversight.”

“At this time, there are no plans for more water quality tests,” she added. “The streams that run through the dairy are non-perennial and seem to only flow during heavy storms.”

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A phone number for the dairy’s general manager was no longer in service Wednesday.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.