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June 12, 2013

Panel: Well problems, Chobani not related

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — As official with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission said Tuesday that his agency has no scientific proof linking the Chobani yogurt factory’s uptake of aquifer water with residential well problems reported by some residents of South Edmeston, the hamlet just east of the plant located in Columbus.

Jim Richenderfer, director of technical programs for the SRBC, said in response to questions posed by The Daily Star that the well failures investigated in South Edmeston “were all found to be mechanical in nature.”

He added: “The SRBC has no scientific information supporting the conclusion that past operation of Chobani wells has negatively impacted nearby residential wells.”

At a meeting of the Otsego County Soild Waste and Environmental Concerns Committee in Cooperstown, Scott Fickbohm, manager of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District, suggested that the SRBC funnel some of the $130,000 it collected from Chobani in a settlement agreement to help South Edmeston residents pay for well repairs.

Asked about that suggestion later, Richenderfer said that “Chobani already repaired, at its own expense, several residential wells that failed during the drought of 2012.”

And while there is no evidence that Chobani’s uptake of water impaired those wells, he said, “should future operation of Chobani wells have an impact on nearby wells, it would be the responsibility of Chobani to remedy the situation, not the responsibility of the SRBC.”

Fickbohm also raised questions about whether the aquifer testing arranged by Chobani could have accurately discerned the impact that the company’s water uptake was having on its neighbors, since it was not conducted during summer months, when the water levels are at their lowest.

Richenderfer said the tests SRBC required Chobani to conduct had to be “consistent with acceptable hydrogeologic practices.”

He added: “The results of those tests enabled SRBC staff to draw reasoned conclusions regarding the potential (or lack thereof) for negative impacts to occur in nearby domestic wells due to the operation of Chobani wells at the approved rates during any time of the year, including the summer months.”

Last December, Chobani agreed to pay the SRBC the negotiated settlement of $130,000. The company, whose products first hit store shelves in 2007 and has gone on to become the nation’s largest producer of Greek-style yogurt, had been violating SRBC rules by taking aquifer water without the regulatory agency’s permission.

The company has self-reported to the SRBC that it draws about 900,000 gallons per day.

Chobani’s water uptake is currently undergoing its first full SRBC review. The agency, which held a public hearing on the application last month, is expected to act on it at its June 10 meeting. The deadline to submit written comments to the SRBC is Friday.

Fickbohm and Otsego County Planner Karen Sullivan said they plan to submit comments because of the plant’s potential impact on South Edmeston residents.

South Edmeston resident William Cornell said he and his neighbors are skeptical of the conclusions by Chobani’s team of engineers that drought conditions were responsible for the well problems in the hamlet, not the yogurt plant.

“We’ve had droughts here before (Chobani began operating) and people haven’t seen that much of a drop in their wells during those other droughts,” Cornell said.