Ookala residents frustrated by latest dairy discharge

  • Courtesy photo of Big Island Dairy.

Another wastewater discharge from Big Island Dairy this week is the latest to leave Ookala residents frustrated.

On Monday, Big Island Dairy, which is set to cease operations next year, discharged nearly 600,000 gallons of wastewater into Kaohaoha Gulch.

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It is just one of several such spills and discharges that have occurred at the dairy this year.

“(There’s) nothing like having the dairy say ‘Merry Christmas’ to the community by releasing close to a million gallons of effluent into the community,” said resident Charlene Nishida.

Ookala has been “vigilant” about what’s going on in its waterways, she said, adding that she received a call Monday from County Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who was informed that the dairy would be discharging wastewater into the stream that runs through the gulch.

“It was very shocking, alarming,” Nishida said. “It just doesn’t seem to end. They have no ability to operate their business without discharging into the streams, and whatever plans that they have for closure are not at all appropriately dealing with the amount of effluent they have going on. … (It is) alarming and shocking they have not been forced to shut down at this point. It’s government at its worst.”

Residents of Ookala have long complained about releases of manure-laden water from the dairy into the nearby gulches that run through or next to the community.

A discharge in May released more than 2 million gallons of rain and wastewater during a period of three days, and in August, heavy rain from Hurricane Lane caused a wastewater pond at the dairy to overflow, sending untreated effluent into a nearby gulch.

The state Department of Health issued the dairy fines of $91,000 on Dec. 4 for three separate spills between April and May. The department fined the dairy $25,000 in May 2017 for unlawful discharge of wastewater.

Big Island Dairy’s owners confirmed last month, however, that they will discontinue dairy and milk processing operations at the Ookala facility.

But problems won’t end with the dairy’s departure, Nishida said.

Nishida said that until the state says a confined animal feeding operation is not appropriate for the land and the infrastructure to support that operation is removed, “then we still have a problem.”

“The dairy’s inability to properly manage its wastewater is a major cause of its inability to continue operating,” said DOH spokeswoman Anna Koethe. “Though the dairy is taking actions to reduce and eliminate its herd by early summer, there remains substantial risk of additional discharges during periods of prolonged wet weather.”

According to a DOH news release, dairy owners reported the discharge about 9:10 a.m. Monday.

Pumping activities concluded about 3:40 p.m. Monday, said Koethe, and the discharge totaled nearly 600,000 gallons.

According to Koethe, dairy management said pumps were used to drain the wastewater lagoons in order to reduce the risk of effluent “passively overflowing from the earthen lagoons.”

“While dairy management knows that the discharge violates an order by the DOH, the dairy management did not believe that a discharge could be avoided due to the wastewater lagoons filling with storm water and affirmatively took steps to discharge in a controlled manner.”

The DOH issued a warning Monday, advising the public to avoid contact with water within Kaohaoha Gulch, between the dairy and the shoreline east of Ookala, after stormwater within the gulch was contaminated with animal waste following the discharge.

“It’s extremely hard for the community to deal with this problem, particularly on Christmas Eve,” said Oregon-based attorney Charlie Tebbutt, who is representing citizen group Kupale Ookala and the Center for Food Safety in a 2017 lawsuit against the dairy that alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act. “Discharges are not only illegal, and knowing that, it’s just simply wrong and unjust. Because an operator doesn’t know how to operate a facility in compliance with the law, that doesn’t mean they should just continue to do so.”

Resident Genard Frazier said he wasn’t too surprised by the news of another discharge but was upset because “they’re using rainfalls and storms … as an excuse to continue dumping their effluent into our gulches. First of all, it’s illegal — and it’s just not right.”

Poindexter said the community is worried about the dairy having to empty its effluent pond as part of its closing.

In the dairy’s closure plan, emailed to DOH staff on Dec. 4 and shared with the Tribune-Herald by Poindexter, by June 2019, upper and lower lagoons will be agitated and cleared, refilled with clean water, agitated, re-washed and emptied.

It’s always raining, Poindexter said, and heavy rains “will flood us out,” but if the ground is oversaturated, then even light rain will “push that (waste) into the community.”

Dairy management did not respond to an email or phone call by press time Wednesday.

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According to the DOH, the dairy will be required to submit a written report to the department documenting the cause of Monday’s spill, and the Clean Water Branch will continue to oversee the situation and investigate the discharge.

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