HILO — Big Island Dairy’s owners confirmed Tuesday that they will discontinue dairy and milk processing operations at the Ookala facility.
“The process of winding up business operations will take several months to complete, during which time the milk processing will end, and cows will be removed from active milking,” owners Derek Whitesides and Steve Whitesides said in an emailed statement. “This was a difficult decision for Big Island Dairy, but it has reached a point that it lacks the additional resources needed to continue the operation under current economic and regulatory conditions.
“Big Island Dairy believes there is value in the dairy market in Hawaii, and that the residents of Hawaii are better off with a local, sustainable food supply that includes milk and diary products. To that end, it is searching for potential successors to take over business operations.”
The dairy is located on land leased from the state. The Whitesides have owned Big Island Dairy since late 2011.
According to Derek Whitesides, there are 24 employees, plus vendors who service the business, who will be affected by the decision.
Residents of Ookala have long complained about releases of manure-laden water from the dairy into nearby gulches that run through or next to the community.
A discharge in May released nearly 2.3 million gallons of rain and wastewater during a period of three days, and in August, heavy rain from Hurricane Lane caused a wastewater pond at the dairy to overflow, sending untreated effluent into a nearby gulch.
In a notice of violation and order issued in April 2017, the Clean Water Branch ordered corrective actions that included “ceasing the discharge of pollutants to state waters.”
The DOH fined the dairy $25,000 in May 2017 for unlawful discharge of wastewater.
A lawsuit alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act was filed in 2017 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
“Well, I think the most important thing is the dairy has realized it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to operate a dairy in that climate on that kind of slope,” said Oregon-based attorney Charlie Tebbutt, who is representing citizen group Kupale Ookala and the Center for Food Safety in that lawsuit. “So they finally came (to realize) after six years of mistakes and discharges that go through the community that they can’t operate, and it’ll surprise me if anyone else can do a better job at that place.”
County Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter, who resides in the Ookala, said the community always has been concerned about the contamination in the waterways.
Poindexter said in the past, there were always dairies on the Hamakua Coast.
“I was never against having a dairy. I was supporting the community in their efforts to keep our waterways clean,” she said.
A win-win situation for both the dairy and the community would have been the ultimate goal, said Poindexter, who had heard rumors of the dairy’s closure in recent weeks but only received such confirmation herself on Tuesday.
“I think we need to work with the Department of Agriculture very closely now to see what happens next on our coastline, and how do we move forward when we talk about food sustainability,” she said. “I want to look at getting more community engagement from the onset of anything that we plan to do moving forward.”