Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Neighbors of Vermont cheese maker Cabot Creamery are pressing the state to study the impact of the plant's well water use on the wells of adjoining landowners.

The Cabot facility withdraws more than 30 million gallons of water a year from three private wells, but the company found out in 2007 that it needed a state permit it never obtained because some of the water is used in drinking fountains and sinks.

Now, the state Agency of Natural Resources is weighing a permit application, and the owners of some adjoining parcels say they believe Cabot's wells are draining so much from an underground aquifer that it's reducing water levels in their wells.

They want the state to study the wells' impact on neighboring wells before issuing the permit.

"I'm thinking 'Why would somebody want a permit for three wells are that are already dug?" said Jill Alexander, whose small farm abuts the Cabot Creamery property. "This whole thing is nutty."

Cabot Creamery, which makes cheddar cheese, cottage cheese and other dairy products, has been a fixture in Cabot since 1919 and is owned by dairy cooperative Agri-Mark.

"Three years ago, we discovered that we didn't have a permit from the state Water Supply Division that's required for public or potable use of water," said Jim Pratt, vice president of operations for Cabot Creamery. "We said it's a very small part of the water, but we didn't have the permit, so I instructed (Cabot) people that we want to live by the highest standards of the law, so let's get a permit."

The permit process, which is nearing a conclusion, calls for a public hearing on the permit application, which was scheduled for Monday night in Cabot.

Rodney Pingree, chief of water resources for the state Agency of Natural Resources, said Cabot's original Act 250 land use permit established that there would be no impact on surrounding property owners' wells. If that has changed, the state would be open to performing a study, he said.

"This is the first we've heard about any issues involving neighbors and Cabot," Pingree said.

"The permit is pending, but we're suddenly hearing about this from neighbors who say they're being affected but don't know how or why," he said. "Are there potentially other reasons for the (neighbors' well water) levels dropping? Weather periods? Neighbors' use of the water? There's a lot of things that haven't been documented. We want to take information at this hearing, but we aren't prepared to point fingers at anybody. We need to get the full picture."

Alexander says her well has had problems for about four years, and she suspects they're related to Cabot's withdrawals from the aquifer.

Shane Zisman, a legal aid representative for the Montpelier-based Toxics Action Center, which is working with the concerned landowners, said they have legitimate concerns.

"We consulted hydrogeologists who said the only way to know for sure is to have interference studies done that look at the hydrogeology of the area and evaluate how much water is being drained," Zisman said. "There's a chance a large consumption of water could deplete an adjoining landowner's supply."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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