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Big Stink

State's Voluntary Approach

August 1, 2000 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Michigan allows livestock factories to police themselves, and forces local people to pay the price of accidents that are bound to happen. Most disturbing is that this kind of regulatory negligence is part of a widening pattern across the state.

Fred Horwath, a township supervisor and third-generation crop farmer, was a little shocked two years ago when he learned of a 2,800-cow dairy coming to his farming community of Hudson, on the Michigan-Ohio line. "Before that, a 150-cow dairy was a big operation around here," he says.
Mild shock about the mega-milking operation recently turned to major concern in the community, however, when the Vreba- Hoff Dairy company announced plans to build a second, 2,800-cow facility just two miles from the first. "Too many, too close" is the refrain now at meetings where concerned citizens want to know what kind of environmental protection they can expect from the state, and what their local government can do to keep the company's expansion from upsetting their rural quality of life.
"Not much" is the answer to both questions. And that, not millions of gallons of manure or intense odors, is the toughest challenge facing local residents. Instead of working to minimize conflicts over huge agri-business, the state of Michigan has fanned the flames by abandoning communities in two serious ways:
•The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) refuses to perform its federal Clean Water Act duty of putting large animal feeding operations -- and smaller operations with known pollution problems -- through a permitting process. Permits would give local residents up front notice about new and expanding livestock factories, assurances that they have been built safely, and documentation, such as manure management records, which citizens need to monitor both state agencies and the industry.
• Michigan also has severely restricted the power of local governments to regulate agriculture operations. Anew amendment to the state's Right to Farm Act (Senate Bill 205, now Public Act 261 of 1999) makes it nearly impossible for local governments to manage the effects of livestock factories like they would any other industry that brings new water supply demands, employees, heavy traffic, and nuisance and pollution potential to an area.

Pattern of Neglect
Michigan allows livestock factories to police themselves, and forces local people to pay the price of accidents that are bound to happen. Most disturbing is that this kind of regulatory negligence is not isolated to agriculture. It is, in fact, part of a widening pattern across the state by which communities either live with the consequences or must marshal extensive resources to fight the state's abdication of its responsibility.
• Manistee County's Filer Township, for example, last year defied a threatened DEQ lawsuit and acted on its own to fill regulatory gaps with a groundbreaking health and safety ordinance for oil and gas facilities. Repeated releases of poisonous hydrogen sulfide from wells in the township over the past few years have sent dozens of local people to the hospital.
• In 1997, the Friends of the Cedar River in northwest Michigan had to go to court to get an injunction against construction of a major golf course on the Cedar, which the DEQ had approved despite overwhelming pollution dangers. As predicted by the Friends, an inadequate stormwater system could not stop tons of sand, mud, and fertilizer from polluting the river when a major rainstorm hit the hillsides that Shanty Creek Resort had stripped of vegetation.
• Macomb County north of Detroit last year sued the DEQ for illegally exempting a developer from the need to get a permit to fill eight acres of wetlands. Macomb County already has lost 74% of its rain-absorbing wetlands. It is one of many Michigan communities that suffers regular sewage overflows because of flooding, and is tired of how the Engler administration's lax oversight of wetlands makes the problem even worse.

Leave It to the Market?
The two Vreba-Hoff dairies will spread approximately 43 million gallons of manure and milkhouse waste each year across farmland in the area, where the headwaters of five major Michigan rivers are located. This amount of dairy waste is equivalent, in terms of phosphorus and other sewage pollutants, to a city of 133,000 people.
The DEQ, however, believes it has higher priorities for its limited budget than to require such facilities to get permits. "It could actually negatively impact water quality if resources are diverted from more important issues to dealing with animal feeding operations," says DEQ's Gary Boersen.
Vicki Pontz-Teachout, director of the Environmental Stewardship Division at the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA), also is adamant that permits are not the best solution. "We think we'll get greater participation on a voluntary level," she said.
Her argument proceeds this way: Banks that loan money to livestock operations and owners who want to avoid big fines for big spills will take it upon themselves to do the right thing. Livestock operations will follow voluntary site selection and management guidelines in the Michigan Right to Farm Act because they want the nuisance lawsuit protection that the Act affords. Producers also will participate in a new voluntary, statewide certification program now under development by an industry-led, state-funded group because they want to avoid violating laws against water contamination.

Permit As Insurance
The new certification program will be an improvement for Michigan. But it is still proposed as a purely voluntary program, which would have no teeth for disciplining operations that ignore state guidance or local residents' complaints.
Steven Vander Hoff, one of nine family members who own the Vreba-Hoff Dairy, says his company has taken every precaution possible to avoid environmental problems and has built its barns and lagoons by the book. Yet Mr. Vander Hoff is not opposed to permits if all producers are treated the same. "We're already keeping good records of what we do," he said. "I don't see any reason not to open them to inspection."
The sheer volume of manure that today's larger operations store and spread makes permits especially important for the public, says Merritt Frey, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says federal Clean Water Act permits give the public an opportunity to review and comment on most livestock companies' waste management plans. Permits also provide vital information on types and locations of wastes for use in public health emergencies, as well as a legal hook for making sure an operation lives up to its promises. "They give people the chance to bring a citizens suit against a facility if it does not live up to permit conditions," Ms. Frey said.
Permits make sense to Hudson-area resident Christie Cook, who notes that the state DEQ recently ordered two housing areas near Lime Lake, just two miles downstream from where the second Vreba-Hoff dairy will go, to put in a $2.5 million wastewater treatment system for about 250 people. The state will regularly inspect this wastewater system. Residents also must pay for an environmental impact statement before they build it. "But I don't see where big farms with much more waste have any burden of proof," Ms. Cook said. "As long as they don't have any complaints against them, the state stays out."

Hands Tied
Fred Horwath, supervisor of the township where Vreba-Hoff Dairy will put its new dairy, says he'd like to be able to assure local residents that the company, and several other large dairies that also have moved into the area, have the capacity and the means to manage massive amounts of manure. But because of last year's Senate Bill 205, the Right to Farm Act now prohibits him and other local leaders from passing ordinances that could help keep mega manure in check, such as requiring operators to monitor lagoon leakage or to certify that they have enough land under contract for spreading all their waste.
"When S.B. 205 first came out, I thought it was great for the small farmer getting complaints from city people," Mr. Horwath says. "I didn't realize what we were protecting was these mega farms."

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