OCEAN SPRAY FACES TIDAL WAVE OF TROUBLE AS CHARGES MOUNT

OCEAN SPRAY FACES TIDAL WAVE OF TROUBLE AS CHARGES MOUNT

At Ocean Spray Cranberries' manufacturing and processing plant a work crew watches as hundreds of bottles rattle along a conveyor and are filled with quick spurts of cranberry juice cocktail.

As the bottles circle and dip along the conveyor line, a few yards away thousands of berries that have been pumped into circular compressors are squeezed for all the juice they can yield. Once the juice is extracted, cranberry skins and pulp remain.Some of the waste is dumped into outside hoppers while, behind what resembles a miniature garage door, other refuse and water pass over a screen that separates cranberry waste from wastewater channeled into the public sewer.

On the surface, there is nothing unseemly about this site. But it was here that Plymouth, Mass.-based Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the major employer in this town of 20,000, was indicted on felony and misdemeanor charges last month for dumping ill-treated wastewater and other pollutants into the public sewer and a nearby river.

The federal indictment marks the first time felony charges have been filed under the U.S.Clean Water Act. A Fortune 500 firm, Ocean Spray was hit with six counts of intentionally dumping over a five-year period large amounts of untreated wastewater containing cranberry refuse and other impurities from its plant into the town's sewer treatment facility.

The company also has been charged with 72 misdemeanor counts of discharging from its plant acidic cranberry peelings and other chemicals into the Nemasket River and its adjacent wetlands. These indictments, according to the U.S. attorney, allegedly took place from February 1983 through October 1987. If found guilty, Ocean Spray could be fined as much as $2.1 million.

Adding fuel to the fire are the recent indictments for allegedly polluting the sewer and river in Middleborough, as well as the company's response to those charges.

The government, it said, might conceive that one cranberry falling from a truck into a river could constitute a violation of this regulation.

Since as early as October 1976 town officials say they have tried repeatedly to get Ocean Spray to treat its wastewater, which often amounted to 200,000 gallons a day. This lack of treatment, they say, has caused operational problems at the town's public sewage treatment plant, hampering its ability to adequately treat town sewage. Ocean Spray is the largest industrial user of the system.

The company has been fined more than $25,000 since 1980 for repeatedly discharging highly acidic waste into the system. The town eventually sought assistance from the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Last April the DEQE said it issued a non-compliance notice to Ocean Spray, charging it with operating without a discharge permit and violating pH, or acidic, levels and flows.

Although Ocean Spray in 1975 contributed $915,000 to help build the town sewer facility it is now charged with damaging, town manager John Healy has ruffled a few feathers. He recently said the untreated waste discharged from Ocean Spray's plant to the town system has driven up the town's electric bill. The company, he stressed, will be billed for its share of the cost, which he said accounted for most of the town's 16 percent increase in power use so far this fiscal year.

Despite the charges and repeated notices sent to Ocean Spray President John S. Llewellyn Jr., Mr. Llewellyn contends the cooperative feels pretty much blind sided by the indictments. About a year ago it met with government officials and agreed to have an environmental engineering firm review any problems.

Two recommendations evolved from the engineering analysis, and Ocean Spray has followed through on Phase 1, a more than $1 million effort to build containment areas for waste to be piped to the sewer system, as opposed to having it run off into wetlands or into the river. It also has re-piped or covered storm drains and increased its staff of licensed operators to monitor pH levels in its waste water.

While Ocean Spray has corrected some of the problems for which it has been charged, local and federal officials say the actions taken, although welcome, are a little late.

They have been in violation since 1976, and anything they wanted to do could have been done back then, said Michael Deland, head of the EPA's Boston office.

An additional step the town said would bring its relationship with the company full circle is for Ocean Spray to build an industrial pretreatment facility as mandated by the DEQE last year. Such a facility, estimated to cost $1.5 million, would increase the holding capacity for waste even more.

Mr. Healy says that when the grand jury investigation began last year Ocean Spray put Phase 2 on hold. But Mr. Llewellyn disputes that claim. The onus, he said, was on the EPA and DEQE to first issue approval because the company submitted a detailed proposal for a facility last summer.

Despite repeated efforts to get information, he said the company only found out a week after the indictments were issued that the government needed more information and requested that more studies be done before it granted approval for the project.