The City of Atwater has been cited for applying too much sewage sludge on its farm property after hay from the farm was linked to nitrate poisoning of 13 cows on two different farms.
The city contracts with a private firm, Metcalf Eddy Services, to run its waste water treatment plant and a 100-acre farm five miles south of Atwater. On the farm, sewage sludge is used as fertilizer to grow oats, alfalfa and sudan grass.
Lois Carson of Coulterville lost seven cows four months ago after feeding them sudan hay grown on the Atwater property. Manuel and Ilda Resendes of Los Banos lost six cows three weeks later after feeding them sudan hay from the property.
University of California at Davis lab test showed the cows had died of nitrate poisoning - Tests of remaining hay showed high concentrations of nitrate.
The California Regional Water Quality Control Board's office in Fresno investigated after seeing newspaper reports of the problem. The board cited Atwater in a June 10 letter. According to the board, parts of the city farm had received up to 238 pounds more nitrogen per acre than allowed during the course of a year. The water quality board monitors sludge application because excessive application of nitrogen can cause groundwater contamination.
The violation of the city's permit to dispose of the sludge occured in 1994 and 1995. The nitrogen limits are based on the needs of individual crops, according to Darrel Evensen, a sanitary engineer associate with the Water Quality Control Board.
Atwater was to have submitted a technical report by June 25 spelling out the measures it will take to get its farm into compliance . Evensen said the report had not yet been received.
Monte Fink, who operates the waste-water plant for Metcalf Eddy Services, said the remainder of the high nitrate hay has been accounted for. "We've gotten all the hay back."
Fink said he would not comment about the Water Quality Board citation, but added, "We are working with the state board to get back to zero (excess nitrogon) and grow clean hay again."
In the mean time, Carson and the Resendes' have incurred losses of several thousand dollars each. The city's claims adjuster investigated and found the city was not negligent, and the city denied the claims.
'No one wants to claim responsibility, but it's not my fault," Ilda Resendes said. "We don't know what to do at this point.If it was $ 100 or $ 200 I would say forget it, but to me it's a lot money."
Finke said attorneys for the city and Metcalf Eddy Services are working on a settlement offer, but would not comment on the details. "We are working on it.. We are going to take care of it," he said.
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