Public advised to stay out of gulches after spill

Following a weekend spill at Big Island Dairy, the state Department of Health is asking the public the stay out of Alaialoa and Kaohaoha gulches in Ookala because storm water within both gulches might be contaminated with animal waste.

According to the DOH, Big Island Dairy reported untreated wastewater from its wastewater treatment system spilled from a damaged sewage pipe on Sunday, discharging into Alaialoa Gulch.

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The spill, which is thought to be more than 1,000 gallons, was reportedly stopped within about 30 minutes, according to a DOH release Tuesday.

The dairy owner also notified DOH that wastewater from the dairy’s lagoons could overflow into Kaohaoha Gulch because of heavy rains.

Residents should avoid contact with the water within the two gulches, in areas between the Big Island Dairy and shoreline east of town.

“At this time, it is believed the contaminated water has reached coastal waters and further discharges are possible,” the DOH said.

DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said the dairy is required to notify the department of all wastewater spills.

The DOH identified areas that might be affected, posted warning signs and put notifications out to the public, she said.

Okubo said the dairy will be required to provide a written report to the department describing the circumstances of the spill as part of the DOH investigation “to determine what types of action we’re going to take.”

“We’re aware of the concerns of the community,” Okubo said. “We are also concerned about pasture management and odor control process they have in place, so the department will be investigating these issues, as well as the most recent spill.”

According to Okubo, the dairy is not permitted to discharge wastewater from the facility.

Ookala residents have complained about manure from the dairy contaminating nearby gulches for the past several years.

The DOH fined the dairy $25,000 in May 2017 for unlawful discharge of wastewater.

A lawsuit alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act was filed in 2017 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.

“This is a problem that’s been going on for as long as this dairy has been operating,” said Charlie Tebbutt, the attorney representing Kupale Ookala and the Center for Food Safety in the suit. “They expanded without being able to handle the massive amount of manure that they produce, and instead they’re using the gulches as toilets for their operations, which is a direct violation of the Clean Water Act, and a gross violation of the rights of the people who live on Ookala to live free from their manure.”

In April, the DOH asked residents to stay out of Alaialoa Gulch after it was contaminated with manure when an accidental spill of approximately 300 gallons of manure occurred at the dairy.

“It confirms what we experience on a weekly basis,” said Charlene Nishida, an Ookala resident and member of Kupale Ookala, about the most recent spill. “It helps now the (Department of Health) has been able to document it, but this is what we live with continuously. It’s outrageous but not surprising.”

Hawaii County Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter said she was informed of the spill by residents and notified state agencies.

“It is apparent that (Big Island Dairy) may not be able to control the waste from their confined animal feeding operation; and that the effluent ponds … are not able to hold the amount of waste being produced — especially with the amount of rainfall in this area,” she said in a text message.

In a press release Tuesday, Big Island Dairy said the organization experienced “a few challenges” in the past month — the discharge of 300 gallons of “nutrient water” on April 13, Sunday’s discharge because of a break in a hose near their composting area and the abundance of rain this spring, which caused the water containment system to rise above levels for which it was designed.

“We are looking into the cause and treating it as very serious,” Big Island Dairy said about the most recent spill. “Though we have not ruled out foul play, we are committing to building a containment in that area so that if this does happen again, water will not leave the immediate area. …

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“We will continue to work closely with the Department of Health and are taking these events very seriously. As one of two dairies left in Hawaii, we hope that our community will continue to support our efforts to provide fresh and local dairy products.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.