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September 29, 2012

SRBC admits Chobani still lacks water permit

JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — More than a year after the Susquehanna River Basin Commission learned that the the Chobani yogurt factory was pumping water from the local aquifer for its production needs without a required withdrawal permit from the agency, the agency says that it has taken no formal action against the company. And testing of the aquifer has still not been conducted.

It was on Valentine’s Day that The Daily Star first drew public attention to this matter. Several homeowners from South Edmeston - just across the Unadilla River from the Chobani plant operated by Agro-Farma Inc. in Chenango County - told this reporter that their wells had either run dry or were supplying inadequate water. They said they suspected Chobani’s uptake of water was responsible. SRBC said at that time that Chobani had self-reported in August, 2011 that it had been taking water without the required permit.

At that time, SRBC officials told concerned Otsego County officials that they planned to oversee aquifer testing in the summer of 2012 to determine the cause of the water shortages.

As of Friday, according to an SRBC spokeswoman, that testing has still not taken place, although the agency is working with the company to resolve what she called a compliance matter.

In response to my battery of questions, here are the answers and explanations offered in recent days by the SRBC spokeswoman, Susan Obleski:

• “Based on information supplied by Chobani (from the company’s metered wells), the company’s groundwater withdrawal is approximately 800,000 gallons per day.”

• “Chobani is also discharging approximately 585,000 gallons per day on average of treated wastewater and cooling water.”

• “Chobani is not bringing in water from other sources.”

• “ Chobani has been cooperative in developing the aquifer test plan, which SRBC must approve once a few remaining matters are addressed. Completion of the aquifer test plan has been challenging and time consuming due to the way in which many residential wells are constructed (shallow, narrow-diameter drive points operated using jet pumps)

• “To adequately evaluate potential impacts from groundwater withdrawals, it is critically important to have in place a properly designed monitoring network and testing procedures. Chobani has been taking all the steps necessary to meet this objective.”

Chobani, of course, is one of the region’s biggest employers, and I asked Obleski if her agency was perhaps reluctant to be more aggressive in its response so as not to interfere with the company’s storied successes in the yogurt industry. (We had noted that, according to Bloomberg News Service, that Chobani’s founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, is now believed to be worth at least $1.1 billion, and that the company’s sales have quintupled since 2009.)

Obleski responded: “ SRBC is handling this case using its standard procedures followed in all cases involving compliance matters. Also, Chobani has investigated reported impacts to residents’ wells and learned that the impacts were related to mechanical failures, such as problems with well pumps and piping. Although the problems were not related to Chobani’s water withdrawals, the company in two cases paid for the residents’ wells to be repaired.”

She noted that “SRBC is engaged in an active, ongoing investigation, and the company is cooperating with SRBC.” She advised me that “SRBC will provide additional information at the appropriate time.”

One of the South Edmeston residents who has complained about Chobani’s jumping the gun on taking water from local aquifer before it received the withdrawal permit, Dale Brownell, said he believes that SRBC has been dragging its feet while some of his neighbors are still experiencing problems with their wells.

“You let me try to build an addition to my existing home without a permit and see how long it takes the authorities to slap me down,” Brownell said.

While Chobani has tried to generate public support for the company by donating equipment to hospitals and becoming a corporate sponsor of the 2012 Olympics, Brownell said, “That stuff is going to do nothing for people if they don’t have a home to live in. I don’t care about that. I want something done about the water.”

JOE MAHONEY can be reached at jmahoney@thedailystar.com