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May 14, 2013

Chobani's thirst for water grows

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The rapidly expanding Chobani yogurt factory in the town of Columbus is asking environmental regulators to allow it to withdraw hundreds of thousands of more gallons of groundwater than it already takes with its network of wells.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission will hold a hearing at 2:30 p.m. May 23 to take public comments on Chobani’s application to withdraw up to 1.3 million gallons of water per day from local aquifers. The hearing will take place at the SRBC office in Harrisburg, Pa.

If the SRBC issues the approval, Chobani could begin taking that much water immediately, said commission spokeswoman Susan Obleski.

The agency is reviewing Chobani-commissioned hydrology studies examining the impacts on the aquifer from Chobani’s water usage. The company has already self-reported that on average it uses 900,000 gallons of aquifer water per day, Obleski said.

She said Chobani is also seeking approval to increase its maximum daily consumptive use of water to 283,000 gallons per day from its three wells. She said the consumptive water use is related to evaporative losses from the cooling systems used in plant production of the Chobani yogurt.

Chobani’s current maximum daily consumptive use of water is 130,000 gallons per day, Obleski said.

The current water withdrawal application is important to Chobani’s growth as one of the region’s largest employers because the yogurt manufacturing, packaging and shipping processes require significant amounts of water for cleaning and for cooling systems.

The application is the first time that Chobani’s usage of water will have undergone a full SRBC review of its water uptake. The SRBC is expected to act on the application June 20, Obleski said.

Chobani, whose products first hit store shelves in 2007 and then rapidly evolved into the nation’s best selling yogurt brand, had been withdrawing water without a permit until it advised the SRBC in August 2011 about its water usage.

That triggered an investigation, which culminated in December 2012, with Chobani agreeing to pay a $130,000 negotiated settlement to the SRBC for its unauthorized water usage.

Last year, the company expanded its Columbus plant as part of a $134 million project that included a $3.8 million assistance package from the Chenango County Industrial Development Agency. In December, company founder Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, was reported by Bloomberg News Service to have a net worth of $1.1 billion. Chobani that month opened a new $450 million complex in Twins Falls, Idaho.

Obleski said her agency is still reviewing the engineering reports that Chobani has submitted in conjunction with its application for the water withdrawal. In response to questions, she acknowledged that it was theoretically possible the range of potential outcomes could include a limit even what below the levels of water Chobani is currently using.

She also acknowledged in response to questions that the mission of the SRBC is to guard the sustainability of the river basin.

“Commission approvals are structured to ensure that no adverse impacts are anticipated by the operation of this project, and that the project is physically feasible, does not conflict with or adversely affect the Commission’s Comprehensive Plan, and does not adversely influence the present or future use and development of the water resources of the basin,” she said.

The commission has also been trying to ascertain whether Chobani’s withdrawal of water was related to reports of dry wells experienced by some homewners in nearby South Edmeston in Otsego County.

The Daily Star reported last week that a preliminary review of aquifer testing data found that “mechanical problems” with the wells were the “root cause” of those problems. The findings came from an engineering study commissioned by Chobani, and the SRBC said it has not yet completed its review of that study.

Kelly Lacorte, a Chobani spokeswoman, in response to questions about the company’s water withdrawal application, said: “We remain confident that the final review will confirm the water table is adequate for the needs of the community and the company.”

Water is crucial in a yogurt production operation because it is needed to clean and sanitize machinery, said Hamilton Mason, who with his family owns Cowbella, a small yogurt company in the Schoharie County town of Jefferson. A company with a growing thirst for water is likely increasing its production of yogurt, Mason added.

“The majority of the water I use is for cleaning and sanitizing, which I think is quite a bit just for our little level,” Mason said. “For every piece of machinery we have, we have to clean it with soap first, and then rinse it, and then clean it with the sanitizer. I could imagine with their trucks and everything else, all that would have to be sanitized and cleaned. If they are already at capacity and they are running the full amount of milk through each time, they are probably adding more machines and so they would have to increase their water usage quite a bit.”

Mason said Cowbella produces a few hundred units of yogurts each week. Ulukaya told a business publication recently that Chobani turns out 2.2 million cases of yogurt each week.

Of the three wells at the Chobani plant, only one was installed by the company, that one constructed in 2010, according to Obleski. The other two wells — installed in 1938 and 1968 respectively — were constructed by previous occupants of the Columbus site.

Lacorte said Chobani had considered adding a fourth well but has since determined that the existing three wells are “adequate for its water needs.”

The SRBC encouraged anyone wishing to present oral testimony at the public hearing to notify the agency prior to the hearing of their intent to testify and to indicate which projects they plan to comment on, if it involves project applications.

The agency asked that the notices are sent to: Richard Cairo, General Counsel, Susquehanna River Basin Commission, 1721 North Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17102, Telephone: (717) 238-0423, ext. 306, Fax: (717) 238-2436. His email address: rcairo@srbc.net.

SRBC will also accept written comments until June 3, 2013. Comments may be submitted via the internet at www.srbc.net/pubinfo/publicparticipation.htm or mailed or faxed to Cairo.