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Case Study #1 State Opens Gate, Waterways to Livestock Factories

No pollution proofing required

December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

No Pollution Proofing Required

Even more daunting to rural residents than the prospect of yet more and larger "hog hotels," however, is the fact that livestock factories are not regulated like any other industry with toxic levels of waste and health-threatening air pollution. Neither state nor federal regulators require permits or proof of adequate manure management practices from any factory livestock operations in Michigan.

In fact, the Michigan Right to Farm Act makes all pollution prevention measures voluntary, even though livestock factories produce more sewage than the populations of most Michigan towns. The Act also puts the Department of Agriculture, a key partner in the state's push for more livestock factories, in charge of investigating all farm-related environmental complaints.

Under an interagency agreement, the DEQ can act only in emergencies, such as fish-killing manure spills, or when the agriculture department asks for enforcement.

The contrast between state regulation of other pollution sources and its oversight of livestock factories is stark. The smallest Michigan towns must spend millions of dollars to build and upgrade the sewage treatment systems they need to make sure their waste water does not threaten the environment or public health. Livestock factories in Michigan, however, are under no obligation to demonstrate that they have an adequate amount of land (of their own or under contract), to spread manure thin enough so it does not end up smothering soil or streams.

Inspectors Ignore the Obvious

The front offices of both the agriculture and environmental quality departments say the Right to Farm complaint response program works well. Internal documents obtained by the Michigan Land Use Institute, however, clearly contradict this claim. Nearly 20 case files from all sizes of operations in just half a dozen Michigan counties show the agriculture department:

• Overlooks manure spills waiting to happen.

• Fails to seek important information and evidence.

• Puts a priority on closing complaints, despite immediate dangers to the environment and the fact that the operations could ultimately face costly lawsuits and fines when an unaddressed problem results in a catastrophic spill.

Consider the case of a 400-cow dairy in Isabella County that received a $22,000 fine in 1994 for a manure spill that killed 5,600 pounds of fish in the Big Salt River. The spill took place one day after agriculture department inspectors visited the farm in response to a complaint about manure flowing over the sides of a storage lagoon into a roadside ditch.

Inspectors were satisfied when the producer said he would stop the overflow by putting some of the manure on his fields. A report by DEQ inspectors on the subsequent fish kill pointed out sources of the problem, which should have been obvious and targeted for correction by agriculture inspectors. The lagoon was too small and storm water running off farm buildings was a major contributor to the overflow.

More Examples

Many more cases indicate the agriculture department closes complaints without adequately addressing the problem and without considering, or seeking, important evidence:

• After receiving a complaint about "manure bubbling up in the field" on a St. Joseph County factory hog operation, agriculture inspectors visited the site but quickly closed the complaint based on the owner's insistence that he rarely spread manure on the field. The inspectors did not, however, ask to review soil test records or order their own test to confirm there was no problem.

• Last summer, over DEQ objections, agriculture department inspectors approved a dairy's experimental plan for reducing its pollution of a nearby tributary of the Grand River, which the DEQ noted is "filled with bacterial slimes and bloodworms and void of all other aquatic life." The producer proposed planting a strip of vegetation to filter manure runoff. But his plan did not include -- and agriculture inspectors did not require -- essential workability details.

• A 1997 case involved a 2,400-cow Kent County dairy that had applied manure several inches thick to snow-covered, frozen ground above a coldwater trout stream. Agriculture department inspectors closed the complaint when the producer agreed to put two sand berms up against the sludge, which was already running off the field and down the road. A rainstorm that night swept the thick layer of manure into the stream.

The fact that inspectors did not require the producer to solve the source of his manure problem is especially alarming because the agriculture department had already investigated the operation as a possible major contributor to contamination of a village well in Barry County. This factory dairy went on in 1997 to have four more manure spills.

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