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About Face on Factory Farms

Michigan approves new rules to limit livestock pollution

February 14, 2002 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Until now, the lack of state oversight worried neighbors of large livestock factories, like Eric Case, who lives near a hog factory in Mason County.
After dozens of catastrophic and chronic manure spills into Michigan waterways in recent years, the state Department of Environmental Quality has decided it no longer will treat large livestock factories — which concentrate thousands of animals and millions of gallons of manure in one place — like small-scale farms.

In an historic agreement on January 14, the DEQ told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it would begin complying with the federal Clean Water Act. The Act requires states to apply to livestock factories the same rigorous program to keep rivers and lakes clean that all other industrial-scale facilities, such as chemical factories and municipal wastewater treatment systems, must follow.

Until now, the lack of state oversight worried neighbors of large livestock factories, like Eric Case, who lives near a hog factory in Mason County.

As part of the agreement, the DEQ will consult with the agriculture industry and public interest groups to design a Clean Water Act permitting system for Michigan’s livestock factories. "This is a major victory for the people in communities that have had their air and water poisoned as a result of the animal factory pollution and state failure to uphold the law," said Anne Woiwode, Director of the Sierra Club in Michigan.

The DEQ’s new view is a complete reversal from its earlier position that a formal permitting system for livestock factories was unnecessary. The agency asserted that the costs of administering the program would outweigh the environmental benefits. The DEQ also contended that its practice of citing livestock factories for water quality violations after the manure contamination occurred was enough of a deterrent.

"Permits are not magic bullets," DEQ spokesman Ken Silfven told reporters. "Just because you are under a permit doesn’t mean there won’t be a problem."

The agency finally gave in to permits, however, after three years of public pressure, federal government scrutiny, and — ultimately — agriculture industry lobbying.

Late last year, the Michigan Farm Bureau put its support behind Clean Water Act permits for Michigan livestock agriculture after its leaders recognized the state’s self-policing system did nothing to stop chronic violators — called "bad actors" — from fouling the industry’s image.

"We acknowledge there are some bad actors who may benefit from a permit system that forces them to meet the high environmental standards followed voluntarily by their farm neighbors," said Michigan Farm Bureau President Wayne Wood.

Michigan had been the only Great Lakes state to rely on the ineffective self-policing system for livestock factories with more than 2,500 hogs, 700 dairy cows, or 100,000 chickens. Livestock operations this size have become the industry standard after a decade in which a few large companies — contracting with individual, factory-size "growers" — gained control of 81 percent of all beef slaughter, 57 percent of pork slaughter, and 50 percent of broiler production.

Michigan, however, had continued to handle large livestock factories with the same voluntary guidelines that it applies to small-scale farms, which have much less potential for killing thousands of fish in one manure-handling accident. Other states, in the meantime, began requiring the industrial livestock facilities to comply with legally enforceable permit requirements designed to minimize such risks.

Evidence that Michigan’s self-policing system didn’t work quickly mounted in recent years as the number of livestock factories and repeat water quality violations grew. A 1998 Michigan Land Use Institute investigation and a subsequent review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documented major problems with Michigan’s lack of formal pollution prevention requirements. The two reports confirmed that, under the voluntary system, chronic violators enjoyed ample legal room to ignore cleanup pleas and technical advice from state officials.

The state’s long history of inaction also frustrated local residents concerned about water quality, public health, and safety. "Our homes and families are on the frontline of a state-sponsored rural nightmare," said Lynn Henning, a family farmer near Hudson in south central Michigan near the Ohio line, that has seen a proliferation of large livestock factories.

The area around Hudson now is home to nine large dairy factories built since 1997, which together house approximately 10,000 cows. Since 2001, the DEQ has cited seven of the facilities for 12 water quality violations. The DEQ has not, however, levied any fines or required any operational changes to prevent further pollution.

"We need these permits so we can enforce environmental laws on bad actors," Ms. Henning said.

Under the DEQ’s agreement with the EPA, the state will create one "general permit" and require all livestock factories with water quality violations to come into compliance with it. The DEQ also will begin an intensive statewide inspection program to identify those operations that have had violations within the past two years and which will need a permit to operate.

The state hopes to prevent pollution from the remaining operations — those that have not yet had violations — by encouraging them to participate in a new voluntary certification process called the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program.

"It’s a terrific first step, but we still have a lot of work to do," says Ms. Woiwode of the Sierra Club. "This is a critical time for people to start contacting legislators and insisting the DEQ do an adequate job with the general permit. They also should contact the DEQ and ask to be informed about the public input process."

Patty Cantrell, an economist and journalist, manages the Institutes statewide project to conserve farmland and promote family farming. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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