FORT ANN — A well next to a small cow farm has been contaminated by E. coli, and the owners are blaming manure for the problem.
But the cow farmer insists he is not causing the contamination. His own well water was tested and has no trace of E. coli, although his drinking water system also has an ultraviolet light system that kills the bacteria. He says he did not turn on the system before running the test.
There’s no question that his land has a great deal of manure on it, and that a stream runs through the land and into the neighbor’s property.
But farmer Adam Tracy said he would never risk his family’s safety with contaminated water.
“I have three kids. It’s worse with young kids and the elderly, and I have a 6-year-old drinking the water all the time,” he said. “We had the water tested. I’m not worried about it.”
He thinks his neighbors are trying to make him get rid of his cows. The neighbors emphasized the smell of manure as much as the E. coli when they talked with a Post-Star reporter, and they said they want him to remove the cows.
He lives in a town without zoning, on a short road that has two other cow farms. It’s an agricultural area, which means his neighbors can’t force him to remove the cows.
His next-door neighbor is the deputy town supervisor, Deborah Witherell. She wanted the town to force Tracy to remove the cows because of the smell, but the town referred her to Ag and Markets. When she spoke to an official there, he pulled up a map of the lots in question and observed that a stream ran downhill through Tracy’s lot into hers.
“He said, ‘The first thing I would do is test your water,’” she said. “Total surprise to us, it came back highly contaminated.”
Tracy’s cows are not responsible, however, for all of the E. coli found. The stream that runs through Tracy’s property tests dirty before it even enters his land — at 5,800 cfu/100 ml. of E. coli. But when it leaves his property, it was tested at 58,000 cfu/100 ml.
Both Tracy and Witherell have shallow wells near the stream. The wells are their only source of potable water.
Witherell’s well tested as contaminated; Tracy’s did not. After the test, Witherell installed an ultraviolet light system that kills the E. coli bacteria, and now her water tests as safe.
But she is still worried. She’s had her water tested three times since the new system was installed.
“Every time someone gets sick, I go and get the well tested,” she said. “Even I don’t really trust it. I drink a lot of bottled water.”
She also questions whether she would ever be able to sell her house, since she would have to notify buyers of the situation with the water.
For now, the town has not asked Tracy to remove the cows. Witherell has filed a civil case against him, blaming him for the E. coli contamination.
The court case could be difficult to prove. Witherell hired Jarrett Engineering to investigate, and engineer Robert Holmes checked her septic system to see if it could be the cause. His report says that Tracy’s cow manure is the likely culprit.
“A substantial amount of animal waste was observed on the property at 495 Clay Hill that appears to have been collecting over an extended period of time,” he said, adding that manure was “observed spread across the entire area of the animal pen” and in stockpiles “throughout the entire property.” Some of those stockpiles appeared to be next to or partially in the stream, he wrote.
He acknowledged the stream had E. coli before entering Tracy’s property, but noted it increased tenfold after crossing Tracy’s land.
This indicates that Tracy’s runoff “provides a significant contribution” to the E. coli, he wrote.
But proving that the well contamination came from the manure would be “harder to document,” he warned, suggesting an expensive genetic test of the E. coli.
He also said the well could have been contaminated by Tracy’s septic system. He ruled out Witherell’s septic system because the leach field drains away from the stream and well.
Tracy is not backing down. He wants to keep his cattle, which he slaughters for beef for his family. He said he brings the cattle to a leased piece of land elsewhere in town for part of the year, but keeps them on his land the rest of the time.
As for the manure, his father picks up some of it to spread on his corn fields, Tracy said. Another farmer also picks up some manure. The rest is piled on his property, he said.
While the smell was not noticeable on a rainy day, a great deal of manure has piled up. Tracy called it mud, saying the manure had mixed with clay because it has been such a rainy summer.
Neighbors said it is disgusting, because cows stand more than ankle-deep in the manure. The smell is sometimes unbearable, they said.
And that’s the heart of the issue, Tracy said.
“It’s just a harassment thing,” he said. “What it is, is, they don’t want the cows here. But we’re up here in farming country.”