Deep-injection loopholes for Big Cheese?
We had some problems with this letter from Hilmar Cheese CEO, John Jeter, printed in the
Modesto Bee, Jan. 29, 2006, Salty waste water a tricky dilemma...John Jeter, chief executive
officer of Hilmar Cheese Co.
First, the fundamental dilemma the plant finds itself in is not mentioned: it is the "largest
cheese plant in the world." The assumption that largest is best is never challenged, yet
obviously, it is the amount of the waste it generates that causes the dilemma.
Secondly, we find Jeter representing the conclusions of a federal Environmental Protection
Agency study on 500 "Class I wells in 14 states." The 1996 EPA study we found on the Internet
by that title did not support the conclusion Jeter reached and included information that
aquifer studies had been done in the Southeast, Texas and Kansas, but not in California. It
does not appear that "underground injection of brines" is old news to California, just
because hundreds of deep injection wells exist already in other parts of the nation. There
are a number of lawsuits mentioned on the Internet, available to all in a 30-second study, in
Florida, Texas and Michigan, that challenge Jeter's claims the wells don't leak and don't
A foreign suit against deep injection wells that jumped out at us was in Siberia, against the
deep injection of nuclear wastes.
Reading the 1996 EPA study, we learned that "leadership" in this technology has been provided
by US chemical companies. It made us wonder how much cummulative contamination of deep
aquifers in the US has already taken place.
Third, without adequate studies of the underground aquifers in Merced County, we wonder how
any valid tests can be made of the effects of the proposed well on the aquifer. It is in the
nature of this technology, apparently, that the damage is only noticed years after deep
Last, we challenge Jeter's conclusions. Hilmar's salt management problem is the problem of
the producer of the salt. It becomes the public's problem when it pollutes. The public's
problem is to protect itself from Hilmar's salt. The public's solution is government
regulation. It is fair, I think to say, that Hilmar Cheese became the largest cheese factory
in the world in part as the result of the regional water quality board for years "relaxing"
its pollution regulation of Hilmar. After Hilmar had become the largest cheese factory in the
world, the press (Sacramento Bee) exposed the pattern of corruption of the water board. The
board responded by getting tough on Hilmar, after which about half its members resigned or
Hilmar successfully used the "black box" strategy to avoid regulation by the state. This
strategy works on the principle that "new technology" will always solve pollution problems.
Therefore, while the company is investing in new technologies -- whether they work or not --
the company keeps growing and the regulator "cooperates" with the company in experiments with
environmental pollution. The public is asked to accept the damage in the cause of the
progress of technology. Meanwhile, whether the technology works or not, everybody gets paid
and the environment gets more polluted and the regulating agency can justify its relaxation
on the basis of "black-box development."
The figure of $15 million is constantly repeated in connection with Hilmar's investment in a
black box that failed to remove salt from its wastewater as the company kept growing. We'll
just take a wild guess they invested much less in state and federal legislators and got a lot
bigger bang for the buck. For example, how much Hilmar political largesse flows into the third floor of the Merced County Administrative Building? At one end of the hall are the pockets and offices of of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced; at the other end are those local land-use decision-makers, the Merced County Board of Supervisors.
As for the principle of "cooperation" the Hilmar infomercial calls for, it looks suspiciously
like the corporation is asking the public to uncritically accept yet another backroom deal
between this polluter and another regulator for the purpose of the corporation's profits and
so, presumably, it won't have to move to Dalhart TX, where, according to corporate
propaganda, the public would be more "cooperative" in allowing its environment to be
Corporations like Hilmar, politically connected in powerfully lobbying industries, have been able to politically bargain to get regulators to "relax" regulations the government has placed on huge (polluting) corporations to defend the public against pollution. In this piece, which we suggest might have been written by a PR firm (the Dolphin Group, for example) rather than by Jeter himself, we have the regulated
corporation complaining against the state regulation and representing or misrepresenting
itself as spokesman for the federal regulator. In Hilmar's case, it has had the lobbying
power of the dairy industry (or some portion of it) behind it all the way.
However, as far as we know, Hilmar Cheese does not yet own even one department in the federal
EPA. At least theoretically, even in this administration, EPA is a public, not a private
agency, with its own spokespersons and officials, capable of expressing EPA policies without
the help of Hilmar's PR firm.
The public would like to know if the EPA now allows and encourages regulated corporations to
speak for it.
Jeter's concluding remark --"Hilmar Cheese Co. wants to be a part of the solution and protect
our land and water, and conserve energy resources for future generations" -- is just off the
wall in light of its record. As for conserving energy resources, is Jeter sending a message
to the Bush administration about the Enron trial? Or is Hilmar drilling for oil and gas?
However, a fundamental problem remains. No agency appears to have jurisdiction over either
the supply or quality of groundwater. The moment Hilmar's surface wastewater is injected
into wells, it appears to escape any government regulation beyond monitoring of the well
itself. Perhaps these wells should be called "deep-injection loopholes."