Hilmar Cheese asks for more time to clean up groundwater pollution

Company wants time to explore cleanup options.

December 24, 2009 

HILMAR -- Hilmar Cheese Co., the world's largest cheese plant, could be allowed to continue polluting local groundwater at its Hilmar plant for another two years, according to a Dec. 8 draft order from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

If state water regulators grant the company an extension of its 4-year-old pollution cleanup agreement, as is stated in the draft order, the company would have until 2011 to become fully compliant and treat 100 percent of its waste. Up until June 2009 the company had proposed that it could treat all of its wastewater by December.

The company asked for the extension to study a less expensive experimental water treatment method rather than use the one currently processing their wastewater.

The regional board issued the draft order on the matter Dec. 8 and found "there is a discharge of water threatening to take place that will violate requirements prescribed by the Central Valley Water Board, and that the discharger may not be able to immediately comply with effluent limitation."

The order, which will be voted on by the regional board in late January, recommends the board allow Hilmar the two extra years it has requested.

While the board has yet to rule on the matter, some environmental groups have taken issue with the potential extension already.

"It's an absolutely horrible permit," said Bill Jennings, president of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Jennings said the regional board is essentially protecting Hilmar Cheese from the state clean water laws, rather than protecting waters of the state from Hilmar.

"This is a poster child for the failure of the regional board to seriously address water pollution problems in the Central Valley," Jennings said.

Burt Fleischer, Hilmar Cheese's environmental director, said in a statement that his company has diligently worked with the state to address water quality issues and has been in full compliance with the state's waste water requirements. He also explained why the company requested two additional years for the clean up.

"With the regional board's concurrence, we believe it is worthwhile to pilot test these additional technologies. Until we fully test it, we cannot determine the overall sustainability benefits they may provide," said Fleischer.

Hilmar Cheese settled a lawsuit with the state in 2006 after years of illegal polluting, which entailed paying a $1 million fine, commissioning a $1.8 million industrial wastewater study, and setting a timetable for cleanup and treatment of the plant's waste, a byproduct of the cheesemaking process, according to the regional board.

Subsequently, Hilmar Cheese proposed a December 2009 date for full compliance.

But the company said in July the costs of its current reverse-osmosis treatment facility were excessive, according to regional board filings.

The company reported it would need until March 2010 to test an electrically-based wastewater treatment process that has never before been used on food processing wastewater. If the new system works, it would be operational by July 2011.

If the testing shows the new system is ineffective, the previously proposed reverse-osmosis system would be fully in place by February 2011.

Lonnie Wass, a supervising engineer with the regional board, said the company cannot currently treat all the waste it produces.

"They do not have the equipment to treat those levels right now," he said. Until the company is fully complaint, they are allowed to discharge untreated water on nearby fields, he said.

Michael Boccadoro, a consultant for Hilmar Cheese Co., said the company has already spent roughly $150 million on an on-site wastewater treatment plant.

And they have been "in complete compliance" since 2006 in terms of the agreement made with the state, said Boccadoro.

Currently Hilmar Cheese Co.'s plant in Hilmar is allowed to discharge 1.9 million gallons of wastewater a day, 500,000 of which is partially treated, according to Boccadoro.

If their request with the regional board is granted, their discharge limits would increase to 2.5 million gallons a day. But that increase is contingent upon the ability to fully treat all the water they discharge, an action they do not currently have the capacity to act on, said Wass.

The regional board will meet in Rancho Cordova at 8:30 a.m. from Jan. 27 to 29 to decide on the matter. Public comment will be allowed at the meeting. Written comments must be received by Jan. 11. For more information, call the regional board's Jeff Pyle at (559) 445-5145.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service