McMINNVILLE, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has levied a fine of $26,574 against Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative, for spilling milk into a creek, polluting water and potentially suffocating fish and other aquatic life.
The McMinnville creamery spilled milk into the river twice in 2019 and nine times in 2018, according to Dylan Darling, the western region public affairs specialist for DEQ.
“This case comes down to protecting water,” Darling said.
Organic Valley spokeswoman Elizabeth McMullen called the spills “accidental discharges” caused by employee errors and technical failures. DEQ, in its civil penalty assessment notice, characterized the creamery’s conduct as “negligent.”
In January 2019, the creamery discharged 87 gallons of condensed skim milk and 384 pounds of milk solids, typically byproducts of the butter or cheesemaking processes, into a storm drain that led into a tributary of the South Yamhill River.
Then in June, milk again flowed down the same drain — enough to turn the creek white for nearly three-quarters of a mile, according to DEQ.
Documents obtained from DEQ show that the creamery made two key errors — failing to ensure that a conductivity meter was set properly and failing to install a heat exchanger to keep the evaporator from cooling down.
The creamery, McMullen said, will not appeal the fines and is committed to paying for its mistakes.
The fines barely touch profits for Organic Valley, one of the nation’s leading consumer brands.
“(The fines) do not have a material effect on our bottom line,” McMullen said.
It’s too early to tell whether the incidents will hurt the co-op’s reputation, McMullen said.
“We work hard to and hope to gain the trust of our farmers, consumers and communities every day,” she said.
To prevent future milk spills, the creamery, which employs about 40 people and processes about 500,000 pounds of milk daily, has made several changes. It has upgraded equipment, trained employees and redesigned procedures.
Meanwhile, DEQ’s Darling said the agency continues to look out for water pollutants from storm drains.
“One of the core missions is to protect water quality, not just for fish but for all Oregonians,” Darling said.