COOPERSTOWN -- Agro Farma, the company that produces Chobani yogurt in Chenango County, is expected to be fined by a regional water watchdog for failing to get a permit for its network of wells, Otsego County Planner Terry Bliss said Tuesday.
Bliss' comments came at a meeting of the county's Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns Committee. He reported that he learned from a representative of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission that financial penalties await Agro Farma for pumping water from the local aquifer without seeking approval in advance from the agency.
The Daily Star reported Tuesday that some residents of South Edmeston, who reside less than one-half mile from the Chobani plant, said they are experiencing a significant reduction in well water, which they said coincides with the expansion of Chobani's yogurt-producing capability.
Bliss told The Daily Star after Tuesday's meeting that he did not know the size of the potential fine.
Susan Obleski, spokeswoman for the Susquehanna River Baisin Commission, said that Agro Farma "self-reported" to the agency in August that it has been pumping water from the local aquifer "without our approval."
Asked about Bliss's statement that Chobani will be fined by her agency, Obleski said it was premature to discuss possible penalties, although she acknowledged that the company has been "in violation" of SRBC permit rules.
Citing the fact that Agro Farma opted to tell the SRBC that it began running the wells without the agency's permission, Obleski said, "Obviously they found out somewhere along the way that SRBC's approval was needed."
She said Agro Farma will now "have to go through a complete aquifer test according to our standards."
Once that is complete, Oblesky added, "Our staff will certainly do a complete evaluation of the test results."
The study, in addition to determining how much water Agro Farma is consuming, will also attempt to determine if activity at the yogurt plant is responsible for the water problems being reported by South Edmeston residents, she said.
Agro Farma spokeswoman Kelly Lacorte said in a prepared statement: "Chobani continues to work closely with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) and other regulatory agencies to secure our water permit and resolve any potential penalties."
Her statement added: "Chobani is committed to doing what's best for our local community and will continue to review and monitor the aquifer."
The statement also addressed criticism leveled at Agro Farma by one of the local residents who said he has experienced a drop in water availability, South Edmeston resident Dale Brownell.
Lacorte said Brownell, after initially contacting Chobani last month about water levels at his South Edmeston property, subsequently told David Sheldon, the company's director of environmental health and safety, "that the matter had been resolved by replacing the well pump."
Lacorte also said Chobani dispatched representatives of a local plumbing firm and an engineering firm to examine the Brownell well.
But Brownell said Tuesday that while his family did replace the well pump and a pipe, "It's not been resolved, and it certainly had nothing to do with Agro Farma's cooperation." He said the only work by the engineers consisted of taking a photograph and a sound recording of the pump before it was replaced.
Brownell said he was pleased to learn from The Daily Star that the SRBC is stepping up its inquiry into the water concerns raised by South Edmeston residents. He said about eight of the 40 families residing in the hamlet are having similar problems with their water.
Agro Farma says it is applying to the SRBC for a permit to drill a fourth water well at its Chobani plant. That will will act as a back-up to three existing wells, Lacorte said.
Chobani purchased the former Kraft plant in 2005.
In an earlier statement sent to The Star, Lacorte said, "Our plant was built in 1920 with the capability of withdrawiing as much as one million gallons per day, but our actual consumption is around 100,000 gallons. We currently use about 700,000 gallons per day, most of which is being treated through our waste water facility and returned to the river."
Running between the hamlet and the Chobani plant is the Unadilla River. Hamlet residents are also complaining about high volumes of traffic through the village as workers stream to and from the yogurt factory, Bliss said.