OOKALA, Hawaii Island — Big Island Dairy’s website claims that its milk comes from “the happiest cows on earth.”

But the people of Ookala, the former sugarcane town downhill from the dairy on the Big Island’s rainy Hamakua coast, are very unhappy. They’ve formed a nonprofit organization called Kupale Ookala, which has partnered with the Center for Food Safety to take legal action over repeated spills and runoff of cattle manure, cattle urine and other waste.

Their lawsuit was filed in June 2017. Documents filed since then by the plaintiffs say that Big Island Dairy had violated the federal Clean Water act on dozens of occasions by discharging “liquid manure,” cattle urine and other noxious substances into three gulches that run through the town and into the ocean. According to residents, the incidents reached a crisis point two years ago when a storm breached lagoons where manure and urine were being stored.

“All that effluent ended up coming into Ookala. The town got shut down, the school bus couldn’t deliver children,” said Charlene Nishida, Kupale Ookala’s vice president. Nishida says that she and her family have been forced to move out of their home, which sits on property astride one of the gullies.

The Alaialoha Gulch in the town of Ookala with Charlene Nishida’s house in the background. The Agulch runs right through their property. Courtesy of Charlie Tebbutt

She says family members got sick after attempting to weed-whack in the gully. “The stench,” she says, “smells so bad that you can’t even open your windows. … If you’re driving down the highway, you can smell it. It smells like really bad farts.”

The dairy has filed a partial motion for summary judgment that, among other things, seeks dismissal of some of the plantiffs’ because, it says, the Hawaii Department of Health has already taken action.

The department has fined the dairy at least once for discharges observed over two days in March 2017.

Department spokesperson Janice Okubo told Civil Beat in an email that “continuing wastewater discharges from the dairy call into question the dairy’s ability to suitably protect human and environmental health; so the HDOH has not issued a permit that authorizes the dairy to discharge.”

“The Dairy remains under a DOH order to cease the discharge of wastewater from its facility to state waters,” Okubo said.

But the plaintiffs say the discharges have continued, often in massive amounts. Papers filed in support of their motion say that already in 2018, the dairy has discharged millions of gallons of “liquid manure” and lagoon overflow into the three gulches that pass through the town. Among the worst releases were approximately 100,000 gallons May 6, nearly 2 million gallons May 7-9, and 5,848,000 gallons during Hurricane Lane, Aug. 13-25, the documents state.

The Nishidas say this gulch, which runs through their property, has been repeatedly polluted with cattle waste. Courtesy of Charlene Nishida

The dairy did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for an interview. But Okuda said that the dairy has been working with her department, and had taken actions to mitigate the problem, such as reducing the size of its herd to reduce the amount of wastewater.

“The dairy did discharge as a result of the heavy rains from Hurricane Lane,” Okuda said. “If during our follow-up, we find evidence of unlawful discharges not related to Hurricane Lane, we will proceed in our normal mode and take enforcement action.”

Beyond that statement, Okubo declined to discuss any enforcement actions against the dairy.

Plaintiff attorney Charles Tebbutt said the dairy had self-reported cattle waste discharges into the gulches six times (though sometimes only after community members reported them first) and the plaintiffs have documented 25 more waste discharge incidents.

In addition to direct discharges into streams and lagoon overflows, the plaintiffs’ documents also note that the dairy has spread cattle waste on fields adjacent to the gulches, and that more waste leaches out of the dairy’s composting operation. The plaintiffs say they have documented waste runoff from those operations, which also drain into the gulches, exacerbated by the area’s steep slopes and 160 inches of rainfall per year.

A sign posted by the health department in April 2018 next to Alaialoha Gulch. Courtesy of Charlie Tebbutt

Cow poop and urine may not be the only problems.

“They have pits that they create and they dump dead animals,” said Tebbutt. “When those pits get full, they fill them in and dig another one.”

Heavy rainfall and steep slopes may be one reason that the dairy’s current owners, Idaho dairymen Derek and Steve Whitesides, decided to move the cows mostly indoors, according to an article posted at agweb.com.

“Cow comfort was a big bottleneck for us being out on pasture,” said Derek Whitesides in the article.

The article said, “At first, cows had to walk uphill from the pasture to the parlor to be milked. Cows often walked through rocky areas that increased the potential for hoof and leg issues. Also, cows were spending too much time on their feet waiting at the outdated parlor, which also reduced the time they could spend eating.”

The article also said that to get the cattle out of the water, Whitesides used composted manure; other bedding choices such as sand were “cost prohibitive.” But the indoor operation, located on former cane land leased from the state, also concentrates pollution.

Whatever actions the health department and Big Island Dairy have taken to mitigate the problems, residents say they’re not enough because cow sewage continues to run through their town and into the ocean, bearing with it loads of bacteria.

“That’s what the citizens’ suit is all about,” said Tebbutt. “When the federal and state governments fail to do their job and fail to protect the public, the people have the right to protect themselves.”

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