City of Corcoran sues well-known dairy company for $65 million

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The city of Corcoran and Curtimade Dairy have been neighbors for more than 100 years.

But about four years ago, their relationship turned contentious.

The city said it planned to sue the dairy for contaminating its drinking water wells with nitrates, a contaminant that if consumed, can interfere with the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to body tissues.

It's known as baby blue syndrome in infants.

Nitrates, according to the state of California, can be associated with fertilizer use, and dairies often use manure as a valuable natural fertilizer for their other crops.

In May of 2017, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board got involved by inviting the city and landowners in close proximity to the contaminated wells to come together and find a solution.

But by last July, the state said it could no longer be an intermediary between the parties, citing the city's decision to seek restitution from landowner group members through civil action.

The city filed its first lawsuit against Curtimade Dairy in December of 2018.

And about a week after the state stepped out of negotiations, the city amended the lawsuit to say it is seeking more than $65 million in damages.

"I didn't show my dad on purpose," Curtimade's Tessa Hall said. "I mean he has heart issues that he's dealing with and he's had a stroke through all of this, so I said, 'I just can't even show my dad $65 million. This is just insane at this point.'"

In its lawsuit, the city alleges Curtimade's manure lagoons "leak into the groundwater" and that the dairy applies too much liquid manure on their land south of the wells and causes nitrates to "leach through soil and into the groundwater."

It says the nitrates in the groundwater then flow towards the city's wells.

A scientist retained by the city found that nitrates in some of the wells could be traced back to animal manure.

"The dairy is a potential contributor, but without data to demonstrate they are solely responsible, it is difficult to say they are solely responsible," said Central Valley Water Board Assistant Executive Officer Clay Rodgers.

"The City has gone to considerable expense to ensure that it is able to provide safe drinking water to its citizens," the city's legal team said as part of a statement to Action News. "Furthermore, the City will incur substantial costs when the contaminated wells are no longer available for use. These costs of the contamination and the ongoing mitigation should
not be the responsibility of the ratepayer."

"So we can relate to not a lot of revenue coming in and having to service debt and maintain running a business," Hall said. "And the city's trying to do the same thing and now they're playing Russian roulette with trying to litigate the neighbor for a new source of income."

Hall, a fourth generation dairy farmer at Curtimade, says the lawsuit is a personal attack on her family and their business, and undermines their successful efforts to stay on top of regulations and industry trends.

But if Corcoran wins their suits, she says they'll be put out of business, and the city will have a blemish on its record.

The lawsuit is on Tuesday night's council agenda under the closed session section.

Many people are expected to go to the meeting and voice their opposition to the lawsuit during the public comment period.

Full statement from city of Corcoran's legal team:
"The nitrate contamination of three domestic water wells is problematic for the City of Corcoran. Over the course of four years, the City has worked with a team of experts who have confirmed that the source of contamination stems from animal waste. Moreover, the City is working with an additional group of experts to analyze other constituents in the water from the affected wells that can be traced back to large scale dairy operations. The City has gone to considerable expense to ensure that it is able to provide safe drinking water to its citizens. Furthermore, the City will incur substantial costs when the contaminated wells are no longer available for use. These costs of the contamination and the ongoing mitigation should not be the responsibility of the ratepayer.
The City has, during the past several years, reached out to the parties in this case in an effort to resolve this matter to no avail. The City is always willing to discuss a mutually agreed upon resolution."
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