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An American flag flies about 150 feet in the air above the silos at Sunnyside Farms in Venice Center.

AUBURN — More information has come out around manure spills in both the Cayuga and Owasco Lake watersheds last week. 

Cayuga County Legislature Chairman Keith Batman said Sunnyside Farms, owned by Greg and Neil Rejman, has a reputation for not only being one of the best farms in the area, but in the state.

"If there's a problem with one of the best farms, you know you have to take some precautions," he said. "These guys had an emergency plan. Really, it didn't work."

Just about everything bad that could have happened to the Rejmans did that weekend of Feb. 18-19. Eileen O'Connor, director of environmental health, said she was notified Friday that the farm had a leak in its manure lagoon. But later that afternoon, she said, she had been assured it was fixed.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 19, she received a call from the Tompkins County Health Department with the news of the manure spill, which was precariously close to the water supply for town of Genoa residents.

O'Connor told members of the Cayuga County Board of Health Tuesday that at first state Department of Environmental Conservation officials thought Sunnyside Farms' manure lagoon was leaking. Afraid that the entire lagoon would erupt, officials told the Rejmans to empty the lagoon, injecting manure into their fields to avoid one massive dump. DEC officials found that it wasn't the lagoon, but a drainage tile underneath that was leaking, O'Connor said. As temperatures rose into the 60s, snow melted and the manure ran off into Salmon Creek, snaking its way into Cayuga Lake. 

That was one spill. The second happened in the Owasco Lake watershed where Greg Rejman had told The Citizen he owned about 500 acres. O'Connor said the farmers tried injecting the manure into the soil. O'Connor said she had heard that an old drainage tile was under the soil, and when trying to inject the manure, the farmers broke it, washing the manure and water combo into a nearby ditch off of Wyckoff Road.

Greg Rejman told The Citizen Tuesday night that the tiles were not the cause of the manure runoff. He expressed frustration as he could not comment on specifics of what happened that weekend because the DEC is still investigating the incidents. He did say the weather was the farm's biggest issue, and that the farm's emergency plan worked.

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"If we would have had the forecasted weather, there wouldn't have been any issues," Greg Rejman said. "We do not inject liquid manure in the winter time as a general rule. We don't do it. It's too risky."

While expecting 40-degree weather, the temperature creeped up to the 60s and the snow melted off. Rejman said the manure that ran off was in its second stage, so it was clear of pathogens and had little raw nutrients. While he takes responsibility for the spill, he said spreading false information doesn't help. Rejman said he's lost weight and sleep over the last couple of weeks, trying to get everything back under control. He was angry, too, that county board of health members were talking about the spills, apparently without all the information. He challenged members to make a decision under the same circumstances he was in at the time.

But board members commended the Rejmans and their staff for their exhaustive efforts getting the situation under control. And it appears no manure made it into Owasco Lake.

The incident did bring questions at the meeting about how effective farms' emergency plans really are, and how farmers keep track of drainage tiles. Those are questions expected to be brought up as the county explores updating its rules and regulations of the watershed.

What also concerned the board, and O'Connor especially, was how she learned about the spill through the Tompkins County Health Department, and not the DEC.

"If I didn't get that call from a Tompkins County colleague, I maybe wouldn't have known about it until Tuesday or so," O'Connor said. "We're going to be talking to the DEC about a more formalized notification procedure and things like that."

With the town of Genoa's water supply in close proximity to Salmon Creek, O'Connor said the spill in the Cayuga Lake watershed could have affected its drinking water. Tests showed on Monday, Feb. 20, that the water was clear.

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Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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