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Know the West

Factory wants to squeeze cheese underground

  A massive cheese factory, mired in controversy over water-quality violations, has innovative plans for its wastewater: It wants to pump the milky liquid deep underground.

In December, the Sacramento Bee exposed wastewater disposal violations at Hilmar Cheese Company near Modesto, which produces over 1 million pounds of cheese every day. A subsequent state investigation into Hilmar’s waste discharge practices resulted in one of the highest environmental fines levied in California’s recent history.

In January, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board fined Hilmar $4 million for violating wastewater standards with the salty "cow water" it flushed onto surrounding fields, something the company had been doing since the 1980s. At the same time, company co-owner Chuck Ahlem resigned as second-in-command of the state Food and Agriculture agency.

Jo Anne Kipps, senior engineer with the Water Quality Board, says that the wastewater was more than just a pungent nuisance; it also raised salt levels in area groundwater — which can be bad for both crop irrigation and human consumption.

Now, Hilmar has applied for an underground injection permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the 1.5 million gallons of wastewater produced daily by the factory will be processed in a new on-site wastewater treatment plant, but the rest will be pumped into a 4,100-foot-deep well, below aquifers containing potable water.

Officials from nearby water districts don’t expect the underground injection to affect their water supplies. If approved, the well will join the ranks of 15 other deep waste-disposal wells in the state, most of which are oil and gas-related. This would be the first such well to deal with dairy products.