Dairy faces fine, possible lawsuit

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Big Island Dairy will be fined $25,000 for illegally discharging wastewater into a stream, the state Department of Health announced Friday.

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Big Island Dairy will be fined $25,000 for illegally discharging wastewater into a stream, the state Department of Health announced Friday.

The penalty follows complaints and the threat of a lawsuit from residents of Ookala, located makai of the 2,500-acre dairy farm.

An attorney representing Kupale Ookala, a newly formed group of residents, said a lawsuit against the dairy might still move forward. A notice of intent, as required by the federal Clean Water Act, was issued last week. The group is joined by the Center for Food Safety.

“This is an egregious situation going back many years,” said Oregon attorney Charles Tebbutt. The notice of intent identifies 10 discharges in nearby streams since 2014, though he said they are a weekly occurrence.

The fine is based on an inspection DOH officials did March 28-29 in response to community concerns.

The department says they found “clear evidence” of an unlawful discharge into Kaohaoha Gulch, estimated at 10,000 gallons of untreated wastewater. The discharge was a result of the dairy’s irrigation practices, which involves spraying manure on croplands used to grow cattle feed.

The dairy, which has about 1,800 cows, also is being ordered to cease discharging wastewater, apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, pinpoint points of discharge and develop corrective action, and develop or revise a comprehensive nutrient management plan.

“Food production and environmental protection are not competing interests, and through this enforcement action and future permitting efforts, DOH will seek mutually beneficial results for the dairy, Ookala community, and greater state of Hawaii,” said Keith Kawaoka, environmental health deputy director, in a written statement.

The dairy may contest the notice of violation and request a hearing within 20 days.

Brian Duff, dairy general manager, couldn’t be reached for comment by deadline regarding the fine.

In response to the threat of a lawsuit, he said in an email that he is hopeful an amicable resolution can be found.

“Big Island Dairy was founded on the principles of supporting the community around us,” he said. “As one of the only local dairy farms left in Hawaii, we will continue to strive to provide a sustainable local supply of dairy products for the people of Hawaii, while protecting our natural resources and environmental quality.”

Ookala residents have been frustrated by what they say has been a lack of response from state officials.

Following a complaint, a health inspector documented wastewater that smelled like cow manure flowing into a nearby gulch in 2014. No enforcement action was taken.

Ookala resident Charlene Nishida said there wouldn’t have been any progress without residents pressing the agencies.

“I’m really proud of the residents of Ookala uniting together to shed light on a problem that affected so many,” she said.

Nishida said the lawsuit would address discharges going back to 2014, not just the incident in March.

She said the department’s notice of violation shows the actions conflict with the dairy’s statements regarding operations.

“It’s not a one-time isolated incident,” said Nishida of Kupale Ookala. “It’s a chronic problem and it’s caused chronic damage to those gulches and streams.”

She said residents aren’t opposed to the dairy, but they want the steams to be protected.

“We see it because it goes right through our town,” Nishida said of the wastewater. A water sample taken in a stream on her property found high levels of bacteria.

“We’re looking for those streams to run clean again like they once were,” she said.

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State officials will host another meeting on the issue at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Ookala.

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

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