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Dairy Farm Spills 3 Million Gallons of Manure into River

Published in the NY TIMES, August 15, 2005:

Workers Trying to Contain Effects of Big Spill Upstate

Published: August 15, 2005

CARTHAGE, N.Y., Aug. 13 - For much of the summer, Dustan Wisner, 15, and his friends have whiled away the days fishing the banks of the Black River.

On Friday, he and his friends were beside the river again - no poles in sight. This time, they were learning that a toxic spill was snaking its way through the slow current and killing vast numbers of fish. "That stinks," Dustan said.

(Photo of Dead fish piled up last week in the Black River, not far from Watertown, N.Y., and Lake Ontario.)

And it did.

The toxin was liquid cow manure - three million gallons in all - creating a murky plume that stretched for miles and giving unfortunate new meaning to the river's name.

The manure did not so much spill as gushed from an earthen reservoir at one of the largest dairy farms in the state, Marks Farm, in the nearby town of Lowville.

The police were notified on Thursday morning, but the callers did not know when the contamination actually began. "For some reason, one of the walls of the reservoir gave way and it started flowing into Black River," said James M. Martin, the emergency manager for Lewis County, which includes Lowville.

Workers tried to shore up the pit, but so much manure escaped that the contamination grew to roughly a fourth the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. "It started killing all the fish," Mr. Martin said. "Black River is known for its fish."

Trout, bass, pickerel, pike and walleye, to be exact. As the manure traveled the river's northwest current through several Adirondack communities toward Watertown, a city of 25,000, and on to Lake Ontario, it sapped the water of oxygen and poisoned the fish with ammonia. Hours later, fish began to bloat and float to the surface.

"It's the biggest fish kill I've ever seen," said Frank Flack, the regional fisheries manager for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, as he paused while taking oxygen measurements from the river in Carthage, an Adirondack town about 15 miles east of Watertown.

"Before it's all done, it could end up to be millions of fish," he said. "Some of those pike are 20 pounds, so they're 10 to 20 years old. It will be years before the river completely recovers."

Health inspectors were busy testing E. coli levels in wells. Emergency crews tried to dilute the contamination by increasing the water flow to a Black River tributary.

Watertown, which uses the river for some of its public water supply, has cut off intake of the water. A national kayak competition was still scheduled to take place in Watertown next weekend. Residents are praying for rain before then.

Canadian officials were keeping track of the plume's path and hoping it would be diluted by the time it reached Kingston and other Lake Ontario communities next week.

Investigators said they did not yet know whether Marks Farm was negligent or the victim of some kind of industrial accident. With a milking herd of 3,000 and 55 employees, the sprawling farming complex is one of the larger employers in the region, which depends on agriculture and tourism to survive.

Much of the product is used for kosher milk, residents said, and is shipped to outlets in New York City. Mr. Martin said he knew of no previous spills from the farm.

The farm's manager, David Peck, declined to comment, saying, "I'm too busy cleaning up the mess to talk now." The farm's Web site says that it is developing a "manure handling system" as part of its business plan.

Mr. Martin said he had been told by the farm's employees that they were planning to spread some of their manure supply on corn and hay fields.

But Steven M. Fuller, whose restaurant, Memories, sits on the banks of the Black River in Lowville, said manure odor from the complex had permeated the air long before the spill. "Unfortunately, that's a part of living in this area," he said. "Farming is vital to the community, but hopefully this spill will lead to better regulation."

Since the accident, he and his staff have been clearing the banks of dead fish so customers will not be repulsed. He has had his well water tested, he said, and it is safe. "Business is starting to pick up again," he said, adding: "Except for the outside decks. That part hasn't been good."

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