U.S. Water News Online
CHINO, Calif. -- The National Resources Defense Council and
Defend the Bay sent notices to five dairies in Ontario, Corona and
unincorporated Riverside County last month, formally threatening to
sue them over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and other
federal laws designed to protect the environment.
Dairy industry representatives respoinded by saying they are
forming a legal fund to defend local dairy farmers from the
threatened lawsuits by the two environmental groups.
"This is a real serious attack on the Chino Valley dairymen," said
Bob Feenstra, executive officer of the Chino-based Milk Producers
Council. "We're going to protect our dairy industry." Alleged
violations by the dairies include discharges of manure-polluted water
from holding ponds, spraying of liquefied manure on surrounding
fields, and stockpiling of manure in dairy corrals. The notices
include descriptions and photos of alleged violations that were
recorded by employees of the two environmental groups.
The notices also include statistics from a water quality study
made by a consultant for the Chino Basin Watermaster stating that
water south of the concentration of dairies is up to 100 times more
polluted than water to the north.
The two environmental groups claim the polluted water continues to
flow south into creeks, flood channels and eventually the underground
aquifer, all of which feed the Santa Ana River from which Orange
County draws 70 percent of its drinking water.
The groups are threatening to sue on behalf of their members who
live downstream of the dairies and whose health, they claim, is
jeopardized by the pollution.
Robert Caustin is the founding director of Defend the Bay, a
Newport Beach-based nonprofit focused on protecting the Newport Bay
and the tributaries that flow into it.
The 48-year-old Costa Mesa resident said the allegations in the
notices are nothing new.
"This has been an issue for a long time between the dairies and
the Orange County Water District," Caustin said. "That runoff and
that pollution is used to recharge our drinking water, and is also
allowed to flow on down into the ocean. We end up recreating in it at
Feenstra agreed that the allegations are nothing new, but stressed
that they and a recently disclosed investigation into potentially
criminal violations of the Clean Water Act by a federal grand jury
ignore recent history in the region.
He pointed to industry efforts to sewer the dairies and to use cow
manure to produce energy. Dairy farmers, Feenstra said, have spent
millions of dollars trying to improve their dairies to control the
storm water that falls on the urbanized northern communities each
winter and rushes south through the dairies, taking manure and
contaminated water with it.
He said the once confrontational relationship that dairies had
with regulators and water agencies has turned to a cooperative effort
to clean things up.
"We have put our shoulder to the wheel," Feenstra said. "Now these
environmental groups are coming along and saying it seems to them it
really doesn't count."
Industry representatives also worry that language in the notices
could easily be applied to many more Chino Basin dairies than just
the five who have already received them.
"We're going to protect our industry instead of letting them pick
off the dairies one by one," Feenstra said.
David Beckman, senior attorney in the NRDC's Los Angeles office,
said his group is focused on violations by specific dairies, not the
dairy industry. He said the notices and the lawsuits if they are
filed, are simply seeking to make those problem dairies comply with
"We're saying to a court, tell this [dairy] operator to clean up
their act," he said. "Had we intended to sue every dairy, we probably
would have sent letters to every dairy."
Donald VanderPoel received his letter two weeks ago.
"My first thought was, 'Whoa, what do I do now?' " the 34-year-old
third-generation dairy farmer said. "My wife didn't sleep for nights.
It worried her sick."
VanderPoel said he looked at the photos and the descriptions of
the alleged violations in the notice and was even more confused
because the pictures showed a drainage channel that diverts rainwater
around his corrals where it would contact manure.
"They see water coming off of a dairy and they just assume that
its manured water," he said.
VanderPoel said his dairy has never received a citation from local
regulators and he believes the environmental groups are just looking
for money, a commodity that he doesn't have a whole lot of.
"I can't afford a lawsuit," he said. "I've only been in business a
year and a half."
Beckman said the environmental groups are not after money.
"These are not tort suits, there will be no recovery of damages to
NRDC or Defend the Bay," he said. "What we get fundamentally out of
this is clean water and clean air. We don't get money."
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