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5 Things You Need to Know About the Big Island [MEGA] Dairy

By Sylvia Wu, Staff Attorney

June 28, 2017
Center for Food Safety

Photo Credit: Kupale Ookala

Today the Center for Food Safety, along with community group Kupale Ookala, sued Big Island Dairy, LLC for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Who is Big Island Dairy, and why has CFS filed a lawsuit against it?

Big Island Dairy’s website features a picture of barns beneath a clear blue sky, surrounded by lush, green pasture, and the phrase, “LOCAL. FRESH. MILK.” The pictures on the Dairy’s Facebook page similarly show dairy cows out in rolling hills of green pasture. Unfortunately, this image of pastoral bliss could not be any further from the abhorrent conditions facing the Dairy’s neighboring community of Ookala. Read on to find out the truth about Big Island Dairy.

1. Big Island Dairy is not your typical local family dairy.

Big Island Dairy is an industrial megadairy operated by the Idaho-based Steven and Derek Whitesides—who reside full"‘time in Idaho—where they also own and operate another large-scale industrial dairy. The Whitesides purchased the facilities from a pre-existing dairy back in 2012 and since then, have rapidly expanded its operations in order to maximize profit. As of April 2017, Big Island Dairy had more than 2,600 cows onsite. Despite pictures of cows in pasture on its Facebook page, the Dairy actually confines all of its active mature milking cows—the vast majority of the Dairy’s herd—indoors full-time. 

The federal Clean Water Act defines “concentrated animal feeding operation,” more commonly known by the acronym CAFO, based on the number of animals in confinement.With more than 700 mature dairy cows, Big Island Dairy is regulated as a large CAFO under the Clean Water Act, and the discharge of animal waste from the Dairy’s hundreds of dairy cows is subject to the Act’s permitting requirements.2 But the Dairy has never obtained a permit for its CAFO operations.

2. Big Island Dairy produces local pollution. Lots and lots of it.

The cows at Big Island Dairy produce a lot more than milk. As a large CAFO, the Dairy also generates millions of gallons of animal urine and feces that, if not properly handled and treated, becomes a significant public health and environmental risk.

No one knows those risks better than the community of Ookala, whose residents reside just downhill from the Dairy’s operations. The Dairy is supposed to collect and use all of the animal feces and urine generated by its cows onsite, by composting manure, applying it to the croplands, and storing liquid manure in at least two onsite storage lagoons. Instead, residents of Ookala have witnessed brown murky water smelling of animal feces—and which testing confirmed to contain high levels of dangerous bacteria—flowing from the dairy into the community’s waterways, and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean. They have also observed the dairy spraying liquid manure on its crops during high-wind days, or immediately before or during rainfall, leading to increased runoff and drift. Animal waste from large CAFOs such as Big Island Dairy contains a myriad of pathogens and dangerous fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria.

3. Big Island Dairy has a documented history of jeopardizing the local environment.

In 2014, after receiving a complaint of smelly brown water flowing into a local stream, the Hawaii Department of Health inspected the Dairy and ultimately confirmed that cow manure from the dairy had contaminated local streams. In a December 2016 inspection report, the Department noted that the dairy’s lagoon systems were so poorly maintained that there was “a high potential” of discharge.3 The Department also noted other troubling operational practices, including burying dead cows directly into an open pit in an existing gulch on its property that ultimately flows into local waterways, and unsafe storage and handling of toxic chemicals. Public records obtained from the State of Hawai‘i also show that the Dairy stores composted manure solids on an uncovered, concrete-padded loading area in close proximity to local streams.

4. Big Island Dairy continues to endanger the local community and the environment.

The local community’s repeated efforts to get the industrial dairy to stop contaminating local waterways have fallen on deaf ears. Even after CFS and the local group formally sent Big Island Dairy a notice of intent to sue on April 28, 2017, local residents continued to observe animal urine and feces flowing into local streams from the Dairy, prompting the groups to file a supplemental notice detailing the additional incidents of contamination. At a community meeting in May 2017, when asked if he would promise not to spray liquid manure over the crop fields under adverse weather conditions to reduce runoff and drift, Steven Whitesides, one of the owners of Big Island Dairy, refused to make that promise. 

5. The State of Hawaii has not taken adequate action to stop Big Island Dairy from polluting local waterways.

The Department of Health has, on numerous occasions, found that the Dairy’s operations put the community and the local environment at risk.  But it was only after the community groups sent the first formal notice of intent to sue that the Department of Health finally issued the Dairy a notice of violation. However, the Department’s eleventh hour notice only concerned one specific incident of discharge from one area of the Dairy’s operations. It does not address the multiple problems with the Dairy’s mismanagement, and has not stopped the Dairy from continuing dumping animal feces and urine into the waters of Hawaii.

These are some of the reasons why CFS has decided to stand with the community of Ookala and take on the megadairy. Click here to find out more about how you can join us in that fight.


1See 40 C.F.R. § 122.23(a).
2See 40 C.F.R. § 122.23(b)(4).
3Clean Water Branch, Hawai‘i Dep’t of Health, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations NPDES Inspection Report 9-10 (Dec. 14, 2016).

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