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Part I: Oversight of Livestock Industry Fails Farmers, Environment

Investigation reveals state ignores spills, sets farms up for fines

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

Michigan has one of the largest and most diverse agriculture economies in the country, producing $4 billion in products that generate $40 billion worth of economic activity. The Michigan Department of Agriculture is responsible for promoting agriculture industries, helping producers improve their practices and natural resources, and preventing any pollution that might result from food production.

These functions are especially important for livestock industries, which represent 40 percent of the state’s farm sales. Dairy, beef, swine and poultry production generates significant income but also generates waste that can threaten the environment when not handled properly. The Department of Agriculture has a program for responding to complaints about manure mismanagement that it asserts is a successful balance of environmental protection and farmer assistance.

A three-month investigation by the Michigan Land Use Institute, however, reveals a clear pattern of pollution, harm to natural resources, and official neglect in the state complaint response program. The Institute investigation found that the Department of Agriculture gives rubber-stamp approval to the livestock operations it reviews, allowing waste problems to persist and water pollution to spread.

Both the environment and livestock producers suffer as a result. Under the Michigan Right to Farm Act, livestock producers that pass the Department of Agriculture’s review receive protection from neighbor’s nuisance lawsuits. Department of Agriculture approval does not, however, protect them from fines and court costs for manure spills they could have avoided if the department had done its job.

These findings are especially troubling for two reasons. First, the state and industry groups have since 1994 put millions of taxpayer dollars behind a program that encourages livestock producers to expand to factory size. Second, the state is now trying to further subsidize the shift from traditional family farms to high-volume, mass-manure operations by proposing that the federal government exempt Michigan from national regulations designed to address the enormous waste volumes that industrial-scale livestock operations produce.

As the amount of manure at individual livestock operations expands, so does the threat to Michigan’s environment and rural communities. The Department of Agriculture’s oversight program is wholly inadequate for the state’s increasing number of livestock factories. It already fails to prevent pollution from livestock operations, small and large. It also fails to give adequate guidance to livestock producers, small and large.

In its review of 40 complaint files, the Institute concludes the program’s two primary problems are:

  1. Vague, voluntary guidelines that allow any semblance of manure management to pass the department’s review.
  2. An interagency agreement that keeps the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality out of the picture until it’s too late.

The Institute found disturbing evidence that these flaws allow the
Department of Agriculture to:

  • Ignore the obvious. Numerous cases involve catastrophic spills and chronic manure problems at sites that inspectors had visited, sometimes repeatedly, in response to complaints. MDA’s general practice in these cases was to close the complaints without sufficient evidence to verify there was no problem. The department neglects to review management records, such as soil tests and application rates, and to find answers to the most basic management questions, such as whether the producer has enough land for spreading the manure.

  • Promote superficial solutions. MDA inspectors accept quick-fix solutions instead of looking into why the problem is happening and why it will likely happen again without an adequate response. The department does not use technical specifications and standards to determine if a producer’s "abatement" actions will actually work. And it accepts actions that address only part of the problem, causing producers to waste time and money while the environment remains at risk.

  • Resist assistance. In many cases, the program’s management refused to consider evidence, such as photographs and water samples, provided in complaints. It also ignored opinions from technical experts, such as MDEQ surface water quality staff, on apparent problems and proposed solutions.

The 1981 Michigan Right to Farm Act was designed to give traditional farms protection from nuisance lawsuits in areas that had started sprouting more residential neighborhoods than carrots and potatoes. In the late-’80s, however, problems with some of the state’s first large "hog hotels" prompted a statewide round of discussions about how to protect rural communities and the environment from the new livestock factories.

In response to proposals for regulating the large operations, the Michigan Farm Bureau and others worked instead to create a voluntary compliance program. The result was a new Right-to-Farm Act based on voluntary guidelines, called Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Principles.

The new Act gave the Michigan Department of Agriculture primary responsibility for responding to complaints about potential environmental problems at farms. The Department of Environmental Quality may only intercede if an actual emergency, such as a manure spill into a waterway, has occurred. In that event, the "zero discharge" standard of the state’s clean water law kicks in and producers are open to lawsuits and fines up to $25,000 per day.

The Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Farm Bureau are now working to avoid federal regulations for industrial livestock operations. They have proposed a strategy based on the state’s Right-to-Farm oversight program, the zero discharge rule, and a proposed voluntary certification process for larger livestock operations. Industry and state officials call this strategy the "Michigan Model."

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