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May 8, 2013

Report: Weak water flow not Chobani plant's fault

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — A preliminary review of data from tests examining the impact of Chobani’s withdrawal of groundwater has determined that “mechanical problems” with wells were the “root cause” of nearby homeowners having difficulty drawing water from the same aquifer, according to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

The data suggests there had only been a “minor influence” on wells from Chobani’s pumping of water, the commission told The Daily Star in response to the newspaper’s inquiries.

Some residents of South Edmeston in Otsego County — just east of the Chobani yogurt plant in nearby Columbus — had told The Daily Star in February 2012 that they suspected that the company’s use of massive amounts of water was responsible for their wells running dry. The residents noted they began experiencing problems with their wells after the company rapidly expanded and began taking water without the proper SRBC permit.

The commission approved a testing plan in which Chobani hired an engineering firm from Baldwinsville. The test was completed in December 2012, SRBC spokeswoman Susan Obleski said.

“The purpose of the Commission-approved aquifer test was to provide data to be able to evaluate the sustainability of Chobani’s groundwater withdrawals and assess the potential for adverse impacts to other users and/or the environment,” Obleski said in an emailed reply.

“A robust monitoring network was employed during the aquifer testing which consisted of more than 40 monitoring points at wells, streams and wetlands,” Obleski added.

She said Chobani distributed well inventory questionnaires to the owners of 78 parcels located within a half mile radius of Chobani’s own wells. Those questionnaires requested information about the types of private wells the residents were using, and asked if the residents would let their wells be monitored during the aquifer test.

Fifteen property owners responded to the well survey, and the water levels were monitored at a total of 17 private wells during the test, Obleski said.

“Commission staff are currently reviewing the hydro-geologic report prepared and submitted by Chobani and their consultants (licensed independent professional geologists and engineers) in support of their pending withdrawal application,” Obleski said.

“As the technical review of hydro-geologic report is still in progress, official findings have yet to be issued,” she said. “Preliminary review of the testing data suggests minor influence at several of the monitored residential wells resulting from pumping at the Chobani supply wells. Additionally, based on the preliminary findings of the review, it appears that mechanical problems (rather than inadequate water level in the aquifer/well) were the root cause of the problems in the wells that Chobani investigated in the vicinity of the plant.”

Word that the testing concernning Chobani’s groundwater was wrapping up first came last week from Otsego County Rep. Linda Rowinski, D-Oneonta, who advised her fellow board members that she had learned the well problems were not caused by Chobani’s water usage. She said the water shortage had apparently been caused by drought.

Asked later where she obtained the information, she said the findings were passed along to her by the district manager for the Otsego County Soil and Water District, Scott Fickbohm. He, in turn, said he learned of the findings from David Sheldon, director of environmental health and safety at the Chobani plant.

Sheldon, in a statement released to The Daily Star by Chobani spokeswoman Kelly Lacorte, said: “The SRBC is currently reviewing the report on the aquifer test, which we filed on March 4. We remain confident that the final review will confirm the water table is adequate for the needs of the community and the company.”

The Chobani plant is located just west of the Unadilla River, a tributary of the Susquehanna, whose watershed area is regulated by the commission.

South Edmeston resident Dale Brownell, who had blamed Chobani’s water use for problems his family had pumping water with their well, said he was skeptical of the testing authorized by the SRBC because it was performed by a company hired by Chobani, Plumley Engineering of Baldwinsville.

“It’s not surprising to me that a company hired by Chobani is saying that Chobani passed the test,” said Brownell, noting his family refused to participate in the test.

Obleski defended the testing regimen, calling Plumley well-qualified to conduct the testing and noting that its engineering license requires it to abide by ethical standards.

A Plumley representative, who declined to give his name, said the testing was completed by his company along with the engineering firm of Haley & Aldrich as part of an application by Chobani to put a new well on line.

The Plumley representative said: “It was the opinion of the two firms — Haley & Aldrich and Plumley Engineering — that the most likely cause (for the water shortages reported by some residents) was either bad well formations or the recent drought.”

Asked whether the tests could be accurate when they were performed months after the residents reported the water shortages, the Plumley representative stated: “There is no definitive test that is going to tell you an absolute for anything.”

Any conclusions that are made as a result of the examination of the test data, he said, will be made by the SRBC.

“We’ve given them thousands of pages of data, and they are combing through them right now,” he said. “They really do do their due diligence.”