South of Melba and the Snake River is a rectangular pit nearly as big as two football fields. The 8-foot-deep earthen pond holds wastewater and whey byproduct from a Nampa cheese-making plant.
Why? To feed to cattle.
An Idaho conservation group questions the environmental safety of storing this industrial wastewater in an open-air, dirt-lined pit, as well as the legitimacy and safety of feeding it to cattle.
On April 7, the Idaho Conservation League filed complaints with Idaho’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality asking the state to inspect the Wilson Creek Cattle Feeders site to determine whether Sorrento Lactalis’ dumping there violates Idaho waste-disposal and groundwater-protection regulations.
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“We are pretty concerned about groundwater contamination,” Idaho Conservation League Program Director Justin Hayes told the Statesman. “When we see waste-handling practices that look sketchy, it gets our attention.”
Google Earth satellite images, taken at least annually since the pit in Owyhee County was dug in August 2013, “show that this lagoon has been slowly filling with cheese byproduct and whey waste since its construction,” the conservation league’s complaint said.
The first image, taken in 2012 before the pit was created, shows desert land and the adjacent Wilson Creek feedlot. Each subsequent annual image shows the pit filled with a milky-white fluid.
The state Department of Agriculture approved Wilson Creek’s request to dig the pit in 2012.
“Pond will be used to store feed additives (whey, reclaimed water, sludge water),” according to the state’s Nov. 28, 2012, final construction inspection report.
Wilson Creek Cattle Feeders owner John Hepton said the whey byproduct is safe to feed to cattle. “It is 100 percent whey, which I have been feeding to cattle for 20 years,” he told the Statesman.
The pond is 565 feet long and 90 feet wide, the report said. The soil lining the bottom of the pit is around 18 percent clay.
Warming in summer sun
In its complaint, the conservation league said: “The liquids deposited in the lagoon are exposed to the elements year round. Summertime temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lagoon is not protected from the dust that blows around the feedlot — dust that contains the dried, pulverized excrement of cattle.
“Given the sugars and proteins present in whey, the lagoon likely serves as more of a giant Petri dish than a storage area for cattle food. It seems unlikely that feeding this waste to cattle would be healthful. … it appears that the Sorrento Lactalis cheese whey wastewater and solids that are being delivered to Wilson Creek Feeders is being dumped for disposal — not feed for cattle.”
Hepton responded, “One hundred percent of everything that goes in the pond comes out the pond. There is no long-term storage.”
Hepton also said the pit is not used for dumping chemical-laden or contaminated water. “We have no reason to bring in anything that is not cattle feed,” he said.
Hayes said he called Sorrento several times to discuss the issue. The company did not call back, so he filed the complaint.
“Hopefully the agencies will investigate this situation and take any steps that are needed to protect the aquifer,” Hayes said. “And hopefully Sorrento Lactalis will review where its facility’s byproducts go and what sort of impact they are having on the environment.”
Both state agencies told the Statesman that they are investigating based on the complaint.
Sorrento Lactalis would not comment.
Complaint leads to changes
The Idaho Conservation League is not the first to file a complaint about activities at Wilson Creek Cattle Feeders.
In July 2013, DEQ received an anonymous complaint with photos showing a private hauler collecting Sorrento wastewater, hauling it to Wilson Creek Cattle Feeders, and then spraying it on the feedlot’s dirt roads.
DEQ investigated. On Aug. 29, 2013, it wrote Sorrento a warning letter saying the company had violated its permit by transporting its byproduct/wastewater to Wilson Creek.
Sorrento’s permit at the time allowed its wastewater to be disposed of only on a 133-acre property adjacent to its Nampa plant at 4912 Franklin Road. The wastewater is applied to that land via flood irrigation.
“If Sorrento wishes to apply to land other than this, for dust control or otherwise, Sorrento must apply for a new permit or permit modification to allow this use,” DEQ told Sorrento.
The agency also sent a warning letter to Wilson Creek saying it did not have a permit to use Sorrento’s wastewater for dust abatement.
Wilson Creek responded that it had “discontinued” the application of the whey as dust control. “(We) will only use the Sorrento whey byproduct as a part of our feed ration,” wrote Hepton, the owner.
Sorrento, meanwhile, had its permit modified to let it use whey wastewater for cattle feed.
Sorrento “trucks approximately 2,200 tons per month of high-strength wastewater from the whey plant clean-in-place rinsing operation and cheese desludgings,” said Sorrento’s revised wastewater treatment plant operation plan, submitted to DEQ and most recently revised in 2016.
“This sludge is not hazardous and contains valuable nutrients for cattle or other livestock. The sludge hauler currently mixes these two waste streams and sells the product as a feed supplement for local livestock.”
Another anonymous complaint
On Jan. 24, DEQ received another anonymous complaint that tanker trucks have dumped industrial waste into the dirt pond at Wilson Creek Cattle Feeders. The complainant pointed out an April 1, 2016, Google Earth satellite photo showing “the pond is nearly full and you can see a tanker truck dumping waste into the pond. ... You will see that there is no liner and you can see it soaking into the dirt around it.”
According to documents the Statesman obtained through a public records request, DEQ followed up on the complaint by contacting David Aulbach, Sorrento’s wastewater treatment program manager; Wilson Creek Cattle Feeders; and the sludge hauler.
Sorrento told DEQ it was no longer using the hauler it had been using when the 2013 complaint was filed. Aulbach told DEQ to contact the new hauler to find out if it was taking the byproduct to Wilson Creek.
Hepton told DEQ on Jan. 31 that he occasionally receives some whey byproduct from Sorrento, which is used to add moisture to cattle feed.
“Mr. Hepton is a nutritionist,” DEQ’s Feb. 3 investigative report said. “They pump it out of the pond and put it into a trailer and then mix it with the feed.”
Finally, DEQ spoke with the Burley company that hauls the sludge for Sorrento. The investigative report said the company, Carne, told DEQ that it takes the cheese sludge and whey sludge “from several facilities to many dairies and feedlots around the state. ... They typically install tanks at these feedlots.”
Ag department: No one told us
DEQ’s report concluded, “If the use of the pond at Wilson Creek Cattle Feeds is in question, the appropriate agency to investigate would be the Idaho Department of Agriculture since they are the approving agency on this structure.”
The Department of Agriculture told the Statesman that it did not look into the issue then because it did not receive a complaint. The department said it did not receive the DEQ report, either.
Hepton told the Statesman he did not want to comment.
Aulbach, the Sorrento wastewater treatment manager, did not return calls seeking comment. Sorrento Safety and Environmental Manager Wendy York refused to talk to the Statesman, referring all questions to the French company’s Lactalis American Group headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y., which did not respond to a call or email.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the Clean Water Act, told the Statesman it is not investigating.
“We are aware of the situation involving Sorrento Lactalis and Wilson Creek Cattle Feed and as a result conferred with both Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture,” said EPA spokesman Mark McIntyre. “Both Idaho agencies have jurisdiction in the matter and have also been involved in investigating the complaint you referenced. ... We decided that the case would be better addressed by the state authorities.”
Sorrento Lactalis environmental violations
In the last seven years, Sorrento Lactalis has paid the EPA $492,428 in penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act at its Nampa plant:
▪ September 2016: $85,896 penalty for 349 violations from July 2011 to July 2015 for exceeding wastewater discharge levels into Mason Creek, which flows into the Boise and Snake rivers.
▪ July 2013: $91,532 penalty for failing to follow safety regulations regarding handling and storage of chemicals, including anhydrous ammonia.
▪ August 2010: $315,000 penalty for dozens of violations from December 2005 to September 2008 for exceeding discharge levels into Mason Creek.