February 27, 2013

Discolored water disrupts production at Foster Farms

Tainted water disrupted poultry production at Foster Farms last week, and city officials are trying to find out what caused it.

City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez described the situation as an "aesthetic issue," rather than a health concern. He said iron and manganese turned the water red.

"Whenever you have that kind of an aesthetic issue, the chickens can actually turn red and things of that nature," he said. "It's become a little bit of a bigger problem lately, so we're working to address the issue."

For years, Livingston residents have reported discolored tap water coming from faucets.

Richie King, vice president of Foster Farms, said there have been instances of discolored water at Foster Farms before, but it's never been as bad as it was last week.

Ramirez said the issue was a costly one for Foster Farms, as supervisors had to shut down a shift, but King said they kept most employees at work despite stopping processing in one of Foster Farms' two processing plants.

Foster Farms picked up its production later in the week to make up for the shutdown, King said.

Ira Brill, director of marketing for Foster Farms, said no poultry were exposed to the discolored water. When workers saw the discoloration, production at the processing facility was shut down until the water was flushed out and cleared up.

The problem is a combination of the city's groundwater and pipelines, Ramirez said. When the iron and manganese mix with the chlorinated water, it becomes discolored.

The city is working to identify the source of the iron and manganese, he said, adding that the problem could be one well, several wells or linked to a certain area of the city.

City officials have taken steps to improve water quality by phasing in pipeline replacement, and two of three phases have been completed.

The final stage of the project is estimated to cost about $2 million, and the city hopes to identify funding and complete that phase within five years.

Ramirez expects the next phase of pipeline replacement to reduce incidents such as what Foster Farms experienced last week.

"It'll minimize it, but it's not going to eliminate it," he noted.

Ramirez said it's important for the city to work closely with Foster Farms on water-quality issues to prevent disruptions in the future, which could cost Foster Farms money and Livingston residents work.

Though Foster Farms officials didn't go into details about how much product they turn out in a week, a 2011 Forbes report lists the company's revenues at $2.24 billion for the year. The Livingston-based company employs 10,000 people, according to the same report.

Foster Farms is the top water user in Livingston.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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