TRACY -- A dairyman has been ordered to clean up his property after state inspectors found several cow carcasses in shallow graves beneath a crop field, the most recent of perhaps several hundred cows to be buried there in violation of state guidelines.
Inspectors found the bloated carcasses and the bones of countless other animals during a May inspection.
Henry Tosta, operator of the Reeve Road Heifer Ranch, told authorities he had been burying cows there several times a month for five or six years, according to case documents.
The cows came from another farm that Tosta operates, the Henry Tosta Dairy on San Jose Road. At that farm, inspectors found a number of other problems during a similar inspection, including "massive" amounts of manure, to a depth of several feet in some areas.
"The operation of this large dairy, located over shallow groundwater, and lacking even the basics of good manure management, has created a serious environmental threat," Pamela Creedon, Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board executive officer, said in a statement. "The burial of dead cows on site in shallow groundwater is completely irresponsible."
According to documents, Tosta told inspectors that a rendering company would not take the carcasses because they were bloated and smelled bad. He claimed he was told by a local health official that he could bury them 2 feet below ground and 2 feet above the water table.
The water board was not appeased by Tosta's explanation. Under a plan approved in 2007, dairies are prohibited from burying cow carcasses. They must dispose of them through a rendering company, or have the carcasses sent to an approved landfill, said water board spokesman Robert Busby.
Buried cow carcasses could release pathogens as they decompose, Busby said. Those pathogens could foul the groundwater and spread disease.
Two of the most recent carcasses were found in an open pit filled with water, and the burial field is near a canal that drains into the delta.
Carcasses ordered removed
Under a cleanup order issued by the board, Tosta is required to remove the remains of dead animals by Monday and collect groundwater samples to find out if the water was polluted.
The water board says it is considering whether to fine Tosta, and might refer the case to the state Attorney General's Office.
The case does not reflect how most dairies operate, said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen in Modesto. He said Tosta is not a member of the organization, which includes about 900 dairies in California.
"The other producers in San Joaquin County, I'm sure, were probably aghast when they read about this," Marsh said.
Marsh did not know the specifics of Tosta's case but noted that disposing of carcasses properly can be very expensive.
"Dairy farmers are still very financially stressed," Marsh said. "The economic recovery still hasn't been felt in the dairy industry in California."
Tosta did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Officials estimate 240 to 436 cow carcasses were buried in the groundwater or directly above it.