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Case-by-Case Review: Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Right-to-Farm Complaint Response Program


February 6, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Michigan Land Use Institute reviewed 40 cases related to the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Right-to-Farm Complaint Response Program.

 1. Cases involving significant environmental problems due to inadequate MDA response. The 16 cases, as identified by the MDEQ Surface Water Quality Division, are summarized here.

2. Cases selected at random from MDA’s 1997 and 1998 complaint files. These 24 cases are not summarized here, but exhibit the same general pattern of inadequate MDA response.

Complaint MDA Response Critique of MDA Response

Operator: Bruinsma

Type: Dairy (~3,000 cows @ 2 sites)

Location: Kent & Barry counties

Complaints: Since 1990. Range from inadequate manure management to potential contamination of village well.

Impacts: In 1997, Kent County facility has 5 spills into coldwater trout streams. E. coli levels greater than 2,000 colonies per 100 ml in June 1997 (partial body contact standard is 1,000 colonies per 100 ml).

  • MDA closed complaints without sufficient technical confirmation and with evidence of underlying problems.

Example: MDA dismisses groundwater contamination complaint based on producer’s statement that his own wells are fine and because producer moved bulk of operation to new location. This despite inspectors note (2/12/96) that producer is "not testing his manure and not applying it according to suggested rates and having waste water get into surface water."

  • MDA also closed complaints as "abated" when source of problem clearly not solved.

Example: Inspectors accept sand berms as abatement against manure (several inches thick on snow-covered, frozen ground above stream) but do not address reason farmer applied manure on snow, which guidelines advise against.

  • MDA gives producer false impression that his facilities and management practices are fine.
  • The producer wastes money on inadequate changes and eventually faces enforcement action.

Operator: Goodman

Type: Dairy

Location: Ionia County

Complaints: MDEQ asked MDA to join site visit.

Impacts: Chronic discharges of milkhouse waste to tributary of Grand River, which MDEQ describes as "filled with bacterial slimes and bloodworms and void of all other aquatic life."

  • MDA takes producer’s intent to plant a vegetative strip between milkhouse waste flow and the creek as meeting guidelines. However, plan does not include details to ensure workability, such as volume that flow strip would handle, type and density of vegetation, or intent to spread out manure current so vegetation could handle it.
  • MDEQ writes letters to MDA explaining potential failure of plan.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service writes MDA explaining that it has only used such vegetative strips experimentally and cannot vouch for this one.

  • MDA signals producer to proceed, encouraging him to invest money and time in the inadequate plan.
  • Once the strip is planted, MDA will be able to close the complaint as "abated," regardless of whether the problem is solved.

Operator: Michigana Farms

Type: Dairy (2,500 head)

Location: Kalamazoo County

Complaints: Nine since 1991 concerning manure mismanagement, groundwater leaching, runoff events, uncontrolled cattle access, and odors/flies. In 1998 MDEQ steps in to handle as emergency situation.

Impacts: E. coli concentrations in surface water range (10/97) as high as 130,000 colonies per 100 ml (partial body contact limit is 1,000 colonies). 1,500 cows in production at any one time have phosphorus equivalent of approximately 30,000 people.

  • File shows MDA closes complaints as not verified without following up on specific information, such as own inspectors’ concerns about potential groundwater contamination from manure stockpiling or MDEQ observations of "plume of suspended solids" in stream.
  • File shows MDA closes other complaints as "abated" even though actions are small, incremental steps which technically abate specific complaint, but do not solve problem.
  • In spring ’98, MDEQ orders detailed cleanup measures due to the fact that "Michigana Farms has repeatedly been in violation" of state environmental laws despite eight years of MDA complaint responses.
  • From 1991 to 1998, Michigana Farms grows from 410 to 2,500 head. Yet MDA never acknowledges a pattern of persistent problems, never requires comprehensive nutrient management, never tests water or asks to see soil tests, etc. from an apparent "bad actor" that is also clearly growing larger in waste volume.

When MDEQ takes over, MDA sends letter complaining that, by interagency agreement, it has first chance to work with producer.

Operator: Kuperus

Type: Dairy (250 head)

Location: Allegan County

Complaints: In ’94 and ’96 per discharges of manure and milkhouse waste (500 gal/day) to drain.

Impacts: In 1996, MDEQ responds to emergency involving "floating mat of manure" several hundred yards long and 2-18 inches of manure solids on stream bottom.

Cleanup involved using hydraulic crane to remove semi-solid manure from 1/2 mile of stream.

Livestock contracted incurable "Johnese Disease" from contaminated stream. Owner must cull the infected.

  • MDA closed ’94 complaint as "abated" per certain manure storage changes.
  • Abatements did not, however, address a pipe in the side of a manure pit that directed the manure to the Nichols Drain nor a waste storage backup mechanism that routed waste to stream.
This case illustrates the catastrophic results and producer costs possible when MDA
  • Inspectors do not assess manure management systems and facilities adequately.

Program management does not evaluate abatements based on technical standards and systems of best management practices.

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