Hilmar Cheese brings jobs to California farm town, but polluted water, too


By Jane Kay
Photos by Craig Lee
Environmental Health News
September 13, 2010

HILMAR, Calif. – A century ago, a band of Swedish families settled in California’s Central Valley, attracted by land that cost $25 an acre and life-sustaining water from the gushing San Joaquin and Merced rivers.

The Mords, the Ahlems, the Nymans and the Wickstroms started dairy farms, milking cows and growing oats and corn for feed. The settlers, joined by Portuguese immigrants, relied on one another to tend irrigation canals and survive choking dust storms and crop-stripping plagues of jackrabbits and grasshoppers. In 1984, to add value to their milk, descendants created an enterprise that grew into Hilmar Cheese Co., one of the world’s largest cheese producers.

Now, much of the well water around the cheese plant, located in the agricultural heart of California, isn’t fit to drink.

New documents show that the cheese is the likely culprit in spoiling at least 18 water wells – probably more – in and around Hilmar. High in nitrates, arsenic, barium and salts, the well water tastes bad and violates federal health standards, increasing the risk of cancer and other health problems.

The story of Hilmar is a classic tale of a company growing rapidly, bringing well-paying jobs but also environmental threats to a rural farm community. In an ironic twist, though, it isn’t corporate outsiders pitted against town residents; the owners of Hilmar Cheese are descendants of the community’s founding families.

"This pollution has become the evil of the town, and they don't know how to stop it," said Rita Mord Sanders, whose great-uncle built the first house in Hilmar. "This water used to be so good. It's not that way anymore."

Rita and John Sanders and their son, Curry, were driven off part of their land more than a decade ago by a well that they believe was contaminated by a leak in a Hilmar Cheese pipeline. They moved less than a quarter mile to a farmhouse on August Avenue used by four generations of her family. Now that well is contaminated, too.

Sanders, a horsewoman who ran the family dairy and now drives a school bus, can hardly keep from crying when she talks of her native town. “It’s not Hilmar anymore. It’s not home,” she said.

Within a mile, the plant is supplying bottled water to about a dozen homes, ranches and offices. But the community water company doesn’t reach beyond Hilmar’s borders, so many families have to wash clothes and dishes and take showers in well water so high in salts that it leaves a residue of white chunky crystals. Their horses, cows and dogs drink the tainted water.

And because of their isolation and the company's clout, many of the people of Hilmar feel helpless and wonder if anyone cares.

Cheese and tainted water


Home to pickup trucks hauling horse trailers and hay bales, 4-square-mile Hilmar has a population of 3,900 in a region hit hard by agricultural unemployment. With 780 jobs, Hilmar Cheese is the economic lifeblood of Hilmar, where the median household earns $52,000, or $9,000 below California's average.

"This pollution has become the evil of the town, and they don't know how to stop it." -Rita Mord SandersOn the outskirts of Hilmar, the cheese plant grew from producing 500,000 pounds of Monterey jack, cheddar and other cheeses per day in 1994 to 1.4 million pounds per day in 2010, making it one of the largest cheese factories in the world. The company’s revenues are estimated at more than $1 billion a year.

But the economic benefits have brought hardships to the town, too.

Partially treated, salty, mineral-rich leftovers from making cheese were discharged onto land around the sprawling 27-acre plant. The effluent, sometimes having stood for days, seeped into the ground water. In addition, a former Hilmar Cheese employee said he and other workers routinely dumped acids and other hazardous cleaning materials on the ground along with the effluent.

Hilmar’s contamination has seeped deep into the aquifer where people draw their drinking and irrigation water, state documents show.

Five years ago, the state ordered Hilmar Cheese to test residents’ wells, roughly 100 of them, within a mile and a half of the plant. A study released in June by the company’s consultants concluded that the weight of evidence indicates that the plant is the source of contamination in six wells, two of them owned by the company. In 12 other wells, the evidence points to the plant as the primary source of contamination. The investigators cite another 24 wells where they can’t yet discern the source – and more wells are still under study.


Drinking arsenic increases the risk of cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin and other organs. Nitrates, a contaminant from agricultural operations found in Hilmar Cheese effluent, can harm fetuses and infants, causing a life-threatening problem known as “blue baby syndrome," when the baby's blood cannot carry adequate oxygen.

The company agrees with its consultants' conclusion that its plant has contaminated some residents’ wells.

Burton Fleischer, the company’s environmental director, said the company is “in an investigation phase” with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“We’ll continue to work with them until the end of this process,” he said. “If there are any past impacts, they will be addressed.”

Over 20 years, Hilmar Cheese has avoided millions of dollars of proposed upgrades to the treatment system and objected to pollutant limits proposed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board while at the same time winning permission from the agency to increase discharges to surrounding land.The company fought enforcement actions, ultimately settling with the board members in 2006 for a $1 million fine and a $1.8 million payout for environmental studies.

Some scientists on the board’s staff warned that the company’s new permit, issued in January, was so lax that they took the unusual step of asking for it to be redone. The board rejected their concerns. Now the company is under a state order to clean up waste discharges by next February.

Also, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance has filed the first step toward a lawsuit challenging the permit, saying it allows the continuing degradation of ground water in violation of state law.

Burton Fleischer, environmental director for Hilmar Cheese, said the company is “in an investigation phase” with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. “We’ll continue to work with them until the end of this process,” he said.“Hilmar Cheese was in violation of our waste-discharge requirements, and it polluted that shallow ground water,” said Lonnie Wass, a supervising engineer at the regional board in Fresno. “It’s very much affecting the shallow aquifer there, and it can be seen in the results of the well testing. You can see the effect it’s had on wells in the immediate area,” Wass said. The contamination is also hitting as deep as 150 feet or so, and the investigation is continuing into the deeper aquifer, he said.

Fleischer of Hilmar Cheese said it’s taken more than a decade to find an adequate way to treat the wastewater because the wastes from making cheese, whey protein and lactose powder are unique. The company has spent $178 million between 2001 and 2010 trying to treat the wastewater, he said.

“We’re innovative. No one in California does what we do in the way that we do it,” Fleischer said. “You don’t know how it’s going to work until you’ve tried it. That takes money, and that takes time.”

One Hundred Miles from Anywhere

Cornfields, almond trees and dairies line the roads around the Sanders’ family farm about three-quarters of a mile from Hilmar Cheese. The Chamber of Commerce boasts of Hilmar’s perfect location, “One Hundred Miles from Anywhere,” including San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean, the scenic Sierra Nevada and the valley metropolises of Fresno and Sacramento.


Rita Mord Sanders’ grandfather settled in Hilmar, and her father, Gustav Marcel Mord, had a small dairy, which she ran for three years after her dad died in 1975. She met John in 1977 when they were in their 20s. He was driving from his hometown of Auburn, and saw the blonde Swedish girl from his truck window.

The Chamber of Commerce boasts of Hilmar’s perfect location, “One Hundred Miles from Anywhere,” including San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean, the scenic Sierra Nevada and the valley metropolises of Fresno and Sacramento.What hurts her most is that she’s related by blood or marriage to many of the cheese plant owners, and grew up with the rest. The older generation of the founding families of Ahlems, Nymans and Wickstroms were her dad’s friends.

“Why are they doing this to me? It bothers me because I know if my dad was alive and Mr. Nyman was alive, they wouldn’t have allowed it. In that era, they took pride in what they did,” she said.

It’s hard to speak out in Hilmar against the cheese plant, the Sanders family has found. Families who have been bought out have either signed confidentiality agreements or are loath to go public. Many residents are owners, related to owners, or have jobs that depend on the company.

The town got a scare four years ago when Hilmar Cheese announced it was building another plant in Dalhart, Texas. The Texas plant employs 180 workers, and Hilmar townspeople fear the company will be attracted by less stringent environmental regulations than California’s.

Back in 1997, a Hilmar Cheese drainpipe leaked, and water pooled on the Sanderses' property for about two weeks until it was fixed. First the family noticed the odd taste and smell of their well water. The water pitted holes in the clothes in the washing machine. After they took showers, their skin felt as though it were burning.

“I had to put lotion on our young son to stop the burning,” Rita Sanders said. Healthy trees planted to mark his first few Christmases all of a sudden died. That’s when they moved to the family farmhouse where they now live. Later, they sold the other land to Jimmy Ahlem, an owner of Hilmar Cheese, and he buried the well, she said.

For years, one by one, many of the residents’ wells have gone bad. The pattern has been that owners of Hilmar Cheese buy the land and people move away.

Across August Avenue from the Sanders family, Alan Peterson, principal of Atwater High School, had a well that tested high in salts with elevated levels of arsenic and barium. In early 2000, he used the well to sprinkle 40 acres of almond trees that he'd planted. The trunks and lower branches began to turn whitish, probably from salts, which can stunt growth. In 2004, Peterson sold to the Nyman brothers, a founding family of Hilmar Cheese. They later pulled out the trees.

Across from Hilmar Cheese, wastewater overflowed onto Maria Chavarin’s property. She had two wells, one contaminated with arsenic, both with high levels of total dissolved solids, or salts, which indicate invasion by discharge waters, according to state officials. Hilmar Cheese officials said that they bought her land this year. Chavarin couldn’t be reached for comment.

Dolores Tagges, a resident for 40 years who lives across from Hilmar Cheese, can no longer leave her windows open at night or hang her clothes on the line because of the smell. She has four wells on the 34 acres her late husband’s family bought in the early 1950s.

“Before Hilmar Cheese came in, we didn’t worry about the water,” she said. In 2006, a couple of years after her husband died, she called Hilmar Cheese to ask if it wanted to buy her property. They insulted her by offering $2,000 an acre, she said.

Last month, the Sanders family discovered that its house well contains arsenic, nitrates, barium and high salts.

A 2005 test found 13 parts per billion of arsenic compared with the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 parts per billion. Nitrates at 21 parts per million are more than twice the federal maximum level. But state and company officials never notified the family of the results; they found out from Environmental Health News. 

 For years, one by one, many of the residents’ wells have gone bad. The pattern has been that owners of Hilmar Cheese buy the land and people move away.So far, the well remains in the “cannot discern the source” category, according to the company’s report.

Hilmar Cheese officials said nitrates, barium and arsenic are not associated with Hilmar Cheese’s discharges. Hydrologists say, however, that changing the pressure and chemistry of ground water can promote the movement of naturally occurring substances such as arsenic and barium that were found in numerous wells around Hilmar. (Editors Note 10/6/2010: Added references to barium)

The well water tasted fine before Hilmar Cheese started dumping wastewater on fields 15 feet from their property line, John and Rita Sanders said.

“This was the nastiest stuff you ever saw,” John Sanders, a truck driver and former bull rider, said. “It smelled like dirty diapers – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”


The Sanders family drinks bottled water supplied by Hilmar Cheese. But they can’t haul it to their five horses, which live on well water. They wonder if the pollutants played a part in the mysterious death of an 8-month-old quarter-horse colt in 2007.

“The vet said it had an ulcer, and it eventually blocked the passage to the intestine. He said he’d never seen anything like it before,” said Rita Sanders. Was it nitrate poisoning or arsenic?

John Sanders worries about the animals. They board a friend’s mare, and realize its fetus is at risk.

“The mare is bred to our stud,” he said. “What’s going to happen to the baby?”

A Changing Town

Old-timers say it was the rapid growth of the cheese plant that changed Hilmar into a company town. Their fear of speaking out to protect their community contrasts the old traditional attitude of neighbor helping neighbor.


When the Swedish immigrants reached the United States, many stopped in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois or Nebraska on the way to California’s Swedish Colony, as it was called as early as 1902, stretching from the Stanislaus County line to the Merced River. They depended on one another to make it in the raw West. They chopped hay, cut corn and gathered at swimming holes or rode the stern-wheel steamboats up from Stockton on the Merced, back before it was dammed and when it had its own salmon run.

When Rita Sanders was growing up in Hilmar, Gustav Mord would tell his daughter that whenever the wind blew, they traded real estate. The neighbors’ soil would blow over to their house and theirs would blow over there. They used to line up for jackrabbit hunts to kill the predators that ate up vineyards and corn plants and stripped the bark off trees.

“I know when our house burned in April 1972, the church, everybody, just one day, pulled into the yard.

There must have been 50 people. When it was all over and everyone left, it really touched my father that they did that,” Rita Sanders said.

Mark Mord, a cousin of Rita Sanders’ who operated a welding shop founded by his grandfather before leaving Hilmar in the mid-1980s, said the founding of the cheese factory was a smart move.And then in 1984, some of the dairy families – Chuck, Jimmy and Billy Ahlem, Sharon Ahlem Clauss and her husband Dick Clauss, Vern Wickstrom and Delton and Lloyd Nyman, among them – had the idea for a cheese factory using milk from local dairies. The company buys milk from 240 dairies and sells under its own label only at its visitor’s center. Its cheese and other products are sold to U.S. retailers and fast-food restaurants as well as supplied for soups, cake mixes, drinks and infant formulas produced in 40 countries.

“They had no restriction on their wastewater. You look at the other producers. All of the drain waters ran under extreme stipulations of how much they were allowed to dump and what they were allowed to dump.” -John Grace, former Hilmar worker     “The dairy families were tired of being told what they’d get paid for their milk. They wanted the value added products of cheese, whey and lactose. The pollution that occurred wasn’t even forethought. They didn’t expect that they’d have those issues and challenges,” Mord said.

One former resident, John Grace, who grew up in Hilmar and worked at the plant in the 1990s, recalled that everybody bragged about how fast Hilmar Cheese was growing compared to other plants in the area.

“But they had no restriction on their wastewater. You look at the other producers. All of the drain waters ran under extreme stipulations of how much they were allowed to dump and what they were allowed to dump,” Grace said.

Grace said he was told to dump cleaning chemicals – caustics and acids – along with the wastewater used for irrigation.

“It was part of your job duties. I was out there irrigating with it. It got nasty. It’d be like standing in a room with chemicals.” He complained about the odor, and they willingly pulled him off that particular job. Other people started doing it, he said.

Fleischer said the company would not comment on allegations of former workers.

Grace said Hilmar is a “good ol’ boy town” where people don’t want to make trouble for the company.


“The only people who are concerned about water quality are the ones affected. The [other] people of Hilmar aren’t thinking about the cost to the town. In 20 years, Hilmar Cheese is going to pollute almost all of Hilmar and the surrounding area. After awhile the ground is saturated. It can only take so much,” he said.

Under the new permit, Hilmar Cheese now puts its cleaning chemicals through a membrane-filter system and disposes some in the deep aquifer at 3,200 feet, a procedure that is approved by the regional water board and the EPA.

Fleischer said the company has been successful in the past months in treating wastewater with conventional methods to remove milk solids, followed by two technologies that use membranes to filter out particles.

At the factory, they coagulate milk into curds, then drain them to get the whey and the lactose. Only 13 percent of the milky liquid is used in the products, leaving the rest as wastewater that goes to the treatment equipment, Fleischer said.

Hilmar Cheese may still discharge its treated wastewater on land but it must meet monthly averages for nitrogen, salts and other substances. The company may put 500,000 gallons per day on 150 acres around the plant. The rest must be applied farther away, but on no more than 1,200 acres. Later this year, the discharge to farmland could reach 2.5 million gallons a day.


Salty residues left from the filtering treatment are injected into deep ground water. The EPA allows this controversial practice nationwide as long as the aquifer contains highly brackish water and the wastewater meets pressure tests and is not expected to contaminate drinking water. Hilmar Cheese can drill four 3,200-deep wells and inject up to 750,000 gallons a day per well. The company also can get rid of toxic cleaning acids, caustics and chlorine in the wells because they will be diluted in the water, according to the EPA.

"They give you bottled water and walk away. They throw you a bone, and everyone seems satisfied.” -John SandersOne civil engineer at the Central Valley board submitted comments as a private citizen earlier this year, warning that this new permit wasn't tough enough to prevent more contamination. It allows excessive levels of pollutants, lets the company bypass treatment during wet weather and doesn't take into account that the waste ultimately might flow to the San Joaquin River, according to the letter by engineer Jo Anne Kipps.

Richard McHenry, a Central Valley regional board civil engineer for more than 20 years who is now at the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said he hopes the state board will heed his group’s challenge to the permit.

“The regional board has allowed Hilmar Cheese to pollute ground water, and the board’s permit continues to allow Hilmar to pose a threat from salts and nitrogen. The limits in the permit exceed drinking water standards,” he said.


McHenry, a senior enforcement specialist at the agency in the last two years he worked there, said the company has been given an excessive amount of time to comply because of the relationship between regulators and the company.

In 2005, Chuck Ahlem, one of the plant’s founding owners, resigned as the state’s undersecretary of agriculture on the day Hilmar Cheese received a relatively light penalty of $2.8 million from the Central Valley regional board for violating state pollution laws. A Sacramento Bee story in 2004 revealed that Hilmar Cheese’s thousands of violations over nearly 16 years went without fines. Ahlem, also a member of the regional board in the late 1990s, came under criticism as an active owner of a polluting company with extensive influence in the state’s agricultural affairs.

On August Avenue, the Sanders family takes little comfort in hearing that the regional board has promised that it is working with the company to bring it into compliance. State officials “are “constantly letting them get away with something,” John Sanders said, adding that the bad water has been a problem for 15 years.

Moving, he said, sounds like the simplest solution, but “how can I sell my land? It’s contaminated.”

“My wife’s family has lived here for four generations. I’m tired of being bullied. They give you bottled water and walk away. They throw you a bone, and everyone seems satisfied,” he said.

“I’m tired of living around people who are afraid to say anything. I’m tired of living the way we’re living.”

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Bad water? It's the cheese. Hilmar Cheese brings good jobs to California farm town, but polluted water, too, by Environmental Health News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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