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DC-based green group sues Jefferson County dairy farm

Wood Farms in Cape Vincent milks more than a thousand cows.
Photo: Wood Farms Facebook page, used by permission
Wood Farms in Cape Vincent milks more than a thousand cows.

(NCPR) - A national environmental not-for-profit is suing a Jefferson County dairy farm, claiming its manure is polluting the St. Lawrence River.

The owner of Wood Farms says the lawsuit is meritless, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation appears to be on the farmer's side.

The Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit in federal court late last month. It claims Wood Farms in Cape Vincent, a farm milking more than a thousand cows and raising another thousand heifers, is violating the Clean Water Act by polluting a nearby creek that flows into the St. Lawrence River.

"Wood Farms is discharging pollutants, discharging manure from its facility into Wheeler Creek, which feeds the St. Lawrence River," said Charles Tebbutt, an attorney representing the not-for-profit.

The lawsuit claims the farm’s manure spreading plan is saturating the soil and causing runoff, and the farm’s clay-lined manure lagoons are insufficient. "The lagoons are leaking groundwater, which they’re only a mile away from the river<" said Tebbutt.

The lawsuit includes photos it says are of foam in Wheeler Creek, arguing the foam is pollution from the farm.

But a letter from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversees and inspects dairy farms’ environmental operations, disputes the Center for Food Safety’s allegations.

It says the DEC did issue a violation to Wood Farms for polluting Wheeler Creek in 2014. But subsequent inspections found the problem was fixed, and the farm hasn’t been cited since. The DEC says inspections in 2019 and 2022 found the farm’s manure lagoons “properly designed” and found its manure spreading within best management practices.

Foam in rivers and streams can come from many sources, including nearby homes' septic systems or road run-off. Cape Vincent Correctional Facility, a state prison, is also near the creek.

The lawsuit says a sample taken in October 2022 shows high levels of E.Coli and other bacteria in the creek; however, the DEC says five samples must be taken over 30 days to be considered for a violation.

"It’s disgusting that in this day and age, somebody can do everything by the book," said Wood Farms co-owner, Lyle Wood, "and you can go, 'I’m going to file a lawsuit against this dairy'".

Wood says his farm has been a state “Dairy of Distinction” for years. He says he follows all the regulations for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, as the letter from the DEC indicates.

"We have to abide by zero tolerance. It’s a law," Wood sais. "You think I want to have anything happen to us? Grandpa started the farm in 1945 with 13 cows. And I pride myself on having a nice place. The driveways are paved even."

Tebbutt says the bigger issue is that even with state and federal CAFO regulations, modern, industrial dairy farming produces too much manure to manage safely and eventually it pollutes rivers and lakes.

"The nitrates and phosphorus in the manure lead to algal blooms in the St. Lawrence River," Tebbutt said. "They’re nutrients that are the key nutrients in triggering algal blooms."

In an email to NCPR, Thousand Islands-based green group Save The River says all too often, large dairy farms are a source of pollution "wherever they are located." Director John Peach says based on the single October 2022 sample, Wood Farms or the DEC should begin regular testing of Wheeler Creek.

Asked if this lawsuit is a test case to be applied to other dairy farms, Tebbutt said not exactly. "It is a shot across the bow to the other dairies that they better clean up their act, too."

Wood says if the Center for Food Safety proceeds with its lawsuit, he’ll fight it in court.

Copyright 2023 North Country Public Radio.