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Dairy Farms Accept Curbs on Pollution

Five Chino-area producers will focus on keeping waste 'lagoons' from harming air, water.

November 20, 2002|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Five large dairies in the Chino area have entered legal agreements to modernize operations and reduce pollution, particularly from giant waste "lagoons," to stave off litigation by environmentalists.

The agreements approved Monday by a federal judge in Los Angeles and announced Tuesday are designed to curb contamination that spreads through the air and water, both on the surface and underground.

Though they did not admit any liability, the dairy farms agreed to work with an independent engineer to develop an environmental management plan for the earthen lagoons and other pollution sources.

The agreement is fairly open-ended, and neither side is sure what the exact restrictions will be or how much they will cost the dairies.

Within six months, the farms are expected to strengthen waste management training programs and to build berms to prevent waste water from spilling off farms and into area creeks and other waterways. Among the previously polluted waters was the Santa Ana River, a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people downstream in Orange County.

The waste lagoons probably will be retrofitted with liners to prevent nitrates and other pollutants from seeping into ground-water aquifers, as well as covers to reduce air emissions and odor.

One activist called the agreements a "big deal." Environmental groups said they hoped that the rules would catch on beyond the Inland Empire, one of the hubs of the state dairy industry, to farm communities nationwide.

" 'Got Milk' should not mean 'Got Pollution Too,' " said David Beckman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We are not seeking the shutdown of the dairy industry, or of these farms. But they need to be run in modern ways."

Some in the dairy industry welcome the attention and the changes.

Bill VerBoort, general manager of the Clovis-based California Dairy Herd Improvement Assn., said such rules are particularly important in such concentrated dairy lands as the Chino-Corona area.

"A thousand cows stink ... a lot more than 200 cows," said VerBoort, whose organization provides program management and advice to dairy associations across the West. "This may not be totally popular politically in my circle, but any time you concentrate agriculture, you start posing challenges to the environment. And the industry needs to address that. Not everybody in the industry is on that page right now."

'We Are Not Making It'

John Vander Poel -- a Riverside County resident who owns the land under the Desperado Dairy near Corona, one of the farms that entered into the legal agreements -- purchased the farm in 1986 and operated it until he sold the cows to his son two years ago.

Costly improvements will not pencil out for an operation already operating in the red, Vander Poel said. The farm receives $9 today for a "hundred weight" -- every 100 pounds of milk. Trouble is, it costs more than $11 to produce that much milk. More expenses could mean the end of Desperado, he said.

"Modernization?" he said incredulously. "We can't afford to pay our bills. We are not making it. Period."

Vander Poel said he has seen misguided environmental actions before. Once, he said, he was accused by San Bernardino County officials of allowing manure-laden water to infiltrate nearby Cucamonga Creek. But that water, he said, was running straight off his roof and contained no contaminants.

"We are the victims of a bunch of radicals," he said. "And then I have to defend myself. It's all a bunch of lies."

But the environmentalists said their concerns are validated by extensive research. Water officials blamed a 1998 fish kill at a percolation pond connected to the Santa Ana River water project on a farm that could not withstand floodwaters, allowing waste water to breach several berms.

It's not just a problem for the areas immediately surrounding the farms, said Virginia Grebbien, general manager of the Fountain Valley-based Orange County Water District.

"If there's a bad actor in the upper watershed, it's affecting us as well," she said. "We're at the tail end. And improperly operated dairies are a problem."

The environmental organizations said that their own investigations began this spring and that in waterways downstream from Chino they discovered nitrate levels 10 times higher than the California safety threshold for drinking water.

At high levels in drinking water, nitrates can reduce the oxygen that reaches a person's brain and other organs.

Urbanization Blamed

The five dairies that signed the legal agreements, known as consent decrees, are among about 250 in the Chino area. The farms are Desperado, Ben Vander Laan, L&M, Gorzeman Family and Gorzeman No. 2 dairies.

Environmental organizations had threatened to sue them under the federal Clean Water Act if they didn't sign. David Albers, a Bakersfield attorney who represents dairy farms, said they did not contest the allegations.

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