Dairy confirms volume of May wastewater discharge

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

Nearly 2.3 million gallons of rain and wastewater were discharged from Big Island Dairy in Ookala over three days in May, before heading into nearby gulches.

A report made by the dairy to the state Department of Health following the discharge was provided to the Tribune-Herald and confirmed by Big Island Dairy and the DOH.


According to the report, approximately 2,298,000 gallons were discharged over a total of 38.5 hours between 4:30 p.m May 7 and 7 a.m. May 9.

Of that total, 96,250 gallons were daily water from dairy activities and 2,032,782 was rainwater, the report states.

“The DOH believes that approximately 2.3 million gallons was discharged over a three-day period based on the report submitted by Big Island Dairy,” DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email. “While the discharge was partially due to heavy rains, the dairy was required to take steps prior to the discharge events, to prevent that type of incident from occurring.”

Okubo said reports were not being released from the DOH at this time because current enforcement action is still open. The department will determine whether further orders in response to the discharge are necessary.

Big Island Dairy business manager Jake Mecham confirmed by email that the dairy reported a total of 2.3 million gallons “of mostly rainwater mixed with our dairy effluent” was discharged between May 7 and 9, just weeks after the dairy had notified the DOH that if the rain continued as it had, its effluent storage would fill.

“In April, frequent rains compounded by equipment breakdowns limited our ability to fertilize our fields,” he said. “Given these challenges, we notified the DOH in early May that the storage lagoons were getting full with no real respite from rain in the forecast.”

The dairy received 4 inches of rain between 5 p.m. May 6 and 7 a.m. the following day, with another 4 inches falling between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m May 7, he said.

“As the rains continued through that day, we kept in contact with DOH to discuss what we should do,” Mecham said. “We proposed pumping the lagoon water into the field downslope from the lagoon to get as much natural filtration through the grass as possible before it reached the gulch. After internal discussion, and with notification to the DOH, we began pumping the water through the grass rather than let it flow over the spillway directly into the Kaohaoha Gulch.”

Mecham said the dairy began pumping the lagoons, which entered the gulch less than an hour later.

“We kept monitoring the pumping activity and flow of the water closely to ensure that the flow was contained to just one gulch,” he said.

Pumping continued as more rain fell, stopping around 6 a.m. May 9, as the rain ceased, Mecham said.

According to Mecham, the dairy took measures to minimize impact.

Water, for instance, was allowed as long a flow path as possible to maximize the natural filtration, he said, and pumps were set to draw liquid off the top of the lagoon “to get the cleanest water possible, since rainfall tends to stay on the top of the lagoon for a time before blending with the effluent underneath.”

Water samples taken from the Alaialoa and Kaohaoha gulches, however, show high levels of E. coli and other bacteria, which Oregon-based attorney Charlie Tebbutt says are a result of wastewater discharges from Big Island Dairy.

Tebbutt is representing citizen group Kupale Ookala and the Center for Food Safety in a lawsuit filed against Big Island Dairy last year in U.S. District Court in Honolulu that alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The water quality information was provided by Tebbutt, who said samples were analyzed by Microbiology Consulting Services LLC in Kailua-Kona. Samples were taken from several locations on several dates, including immediately after wastewater discharges.

A sample taken from Kaohaoha Gulch on May 10 shows E. coli counts greater than the lab could measure.

While other types of bacteria are used as indicators for bacterial contamination, Tebbutt said E. coli is “one of the most critical.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli is a bacteria that normally lives in the intestines of people and animals. While most strains of E. coli are harmless, some can cause illness and can indicate contamination, the CDC says.

“These are huge numbers,” Tebbutt said. “This is a tremendous discharge of at least 2.3 million gallons of contaminated water with bacteria counts that were off the charts. They couldn’t be counted because there was too much bacteria and these type of E. coli bacteria create a direct and immediate threat to human health and the environment.”

Tebbutt also argued that rainwater mixed with waste in the lagoons is not separate.

“All that contamination is what they were discharging to the gulches,” he said.

Okubo said the DOH does not have plans to take water samples because the streams “are not perennially flowing, so taking an upstream and downstream sample is problematic.”

“Following the dairy’s discharge, DOH conducted an inspection and we are overseeing actions to reduce the potential for an incident (such as the ones that occurred in May) from occurring again,” she said.

According to Okubo, Big Island Diary submitted last week a revised “nutrient management plan” that outlines actions the dairy will take to reduce the potential for future discharges of this nature.

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

The large-scale discharge began immediately after Big Island Diary reported that untreated wastewater from its wastewater treatment system had spilled from a damaged sewage pipe and discharged into Alaialoa Gulch.

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

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

Tebbutt claims that “just a few inches” of rain can cause major discharge events.

“This is what the people in Ookala are suffering from on the regular basis, and we intend to ask the federal court to stop this type of discharge, this type of injustice from being heaped upon the community of Ookala.”

Mecham said the dairy continues to work to ensure such an event doesn’t happen again.

“Significantly, we have reduced the number of cows contributing to the effluent,” he said. “We are setting up additional equipment to better manage our effluent storage, and we have been able to apply our stored effluent appropriately and sufficiently that we now have a safe margin to operate and manage it again.”

The dairy is in regular contact and working with the DOH, Mecham said.


“I and we at Big Island Dairy are sad and truly heartbroken that this event occurred,” he said. “We have made changes to prevent this from happening again and look forward to a much brighter future.”

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

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