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State Attacks Local Government to Make Way for Mega Manure

A big roll out for factory farms

December 10, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When people in Michigan think of industrial pollution they think of smokestacks, not million-gallon pools of bubbling hog manure that reek for miles. And when they think of public health and water quality, they picture regulators on the job of making sure factories don’t pollute.

But when it comes to hog manure, Michigan’s public servants are instead rolling out a plush red carpet for the nation’s largest livestock corporations, which could make the same mess in Michigan that they’ve made in North Carolina, Missouri and other states inundated with livestock factories.

The Engler administration and Republican legislators are laying out this welcome mat by seeking to subvert local citizen control, the bedrock principle of democratic government on which they rode to power in the 1990s.

Local control is the last line of defense for communities against the hazards of livestock factories. Yet these same conservative lawmakers are attacking it despite serious concerns about the number of livestock factories now stinking up rural communities across Michigan.

The vehicle for this assault on local control is Senate Bill 205, which is expected to be on the Governor’s desk early in November. S.B. 205 strips local governments of their authority to protect property rights, public health, and the environment from the industrial strength waste and odors of livestock factories.

It does so by putting the Department of Agriculture, which is charged not with protecting the environment but with promoting the industry, in control. Public health officials and the state’s environmental regulators essentially have no role except to issue boil-water orders once a lagoon has fouled local aquifers and to count how many fish have suffocated once a stream is full of hog manure.

If Governor Engler signs this legislation, Michigan citizens will be powerless to prevent livestock factories from contaminating their drinking water, air, and Great Lakes splendor.

Michigan is already the only state in the Midwest that does not require safety precautions from the typical livestock factory, such as a 2,000-head hog operation that generates more sewage than the people of Ludington. Now, in true Big Government fashion, the state is working to make sure communities do not do anything about the hazards of livestock factories either.

Lead lobbyists for S.B. 205, the Department of Agriculture and Michigan Farm Bureau, say local or state regulations are too much for “family farmers” to bear when they already have to pony up half a million dollars to build just one hog factory barn.

Third-generation farmer Jerry Burns of Ionia County’s Northplains Township says that line masks S.B. 205’s real effect, which is to muzzle communities and make way for mega manure.

Mr. Burns and his wife, Louise, live downwind from a 9,500-head hog operation owned by investors out of North Carolina and operated by people who live miles away from the stench. They explain there’s a world of difference between the farm odors they’ve lived with for nearly 80 years and the gases that regularly sting their eyes and sink into their clothes.

“That’s not a farm, that’s a factory,” says Mr. Burns, who raised hogs, cattle and grain until retiring recently on the land that his grandfather homesteaded in 1895.

Rural Northplains Township is now home to three hog factories, each with multi-million-gallon manure lagoons dangerously close to private wells. Residents support ordinances the township has passed that require factory operators to monitor the lagoons for leakage. The township took this action only after it discovered that the state has no rules governing livestock factories.

The only thing Michigan has in place are voluntary management guidelines in the Right to Farm Act, which is a broad statute for protecting farmers from suburban complaints.

It now works, however, as a shield for livestock factories as they move into rural areas. That’s because the Right to Farm Act’s guidelines are recommendations, not rules, and they apply, for example, only after a million-gallon manure lagoon has been built in the wrong place.

Michigan is not the first state to take the dramatic step of centralizing all control over the agriculture industry into the hands of negligent state agencies.

North Carolina did the same thing a few years ago, just before it rocketed into the agriculture spotlight as the 2nd-highest hog producing state in the nation. It is largely because North Carolina took zoning control away from local governments that so many hog factories were allowed to build massive lagoons in that state’s coastal floodplains. When Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina last month, the nation watched horrified as 100,000 hogs and 100 million gallons of toxic manure waste washed across the coastal countryside.

Michigan lawmakers must pay attention to the experience of other states, and pay some respect to their own rural citizens.

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