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Oversight of Livestock Industry Fails Farmers, Environment

Investigation reveals state ignores spills, sets farms up for fines

February 11, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

BENZONIA — A three-month investigation of a state Agriculture Department program to prevent pollution from large livestock operations reveals a clear pattern of water contamination, harm to natural resources and official neglect. The investigation by the Michigan Land Use Institute found the Department of Agriculture allows pollution problems to persist, fecal contamination to spread, and puts farmers unnecessarily at risk of fines and lawsuits for environmental damage.

The failure of the Department of Agriculture to properly oversee waste handling practices at large livestock operations is especially worrisome in central and west Michigan. These areas are experiencing rapid increases in the number of livestock factories, which can generate as much fecal material as cities. A coalition of the state’s largest public interest and environmental policy groups is calling on the Legislature to request that the state Auditor General conduct an audit of the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Complaint Response Program. The intent of the investigation is to confirm that the Department of Agriculture is not prepared to protect communities and the environment from the increasing magnitude of manure generated by large livestock operations in Michigan. The coalition also is calling for a state Task Force to develop a more appropriate and effective regulatory program to reduce the environmental and public health risks from industrial volumes of manure.

The Michigan Land Use Institute discussed its findings on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the home of Jerry Burns, a lifelong farmer from Carson City who now lives next door to a 2,500-sow swine factory.

Since 1994, Michigan has devoted $100 million in taxpayer funds to encourage the growth of industrial-scale livestock agriculture. State officials are now working to further subsidize the shift to high-volume, mass-manure operations by proposing that the federal government exempt Michigan from national regulations designed to protect the environment and communities from the enormous amounts of waste and overpowering odors that industrial-scale livestock operations produce.

The state’s proposal to avoid federal rules is based on the Department of Agriculture’s Right-to-Farm Complaint Response Program. The Institute has found this program neglects to respond effectively to evidence of manure spills and improper waste handling.

Both the environment and farmers suffer as a result. Under the Michigan Right to Farm Act, livestock producers that pass the Agriculture Department’s review receive immunity from neighbor’s nuisance lawsuits. The Department’s approval does not, however, protect farmers from big fines and court costs under separate clean water laws administered by the Department of Environmental Quality.

In effect, farmers are being set up for failure. The Agriculture Department allows producers to continue mismanaging manure until it kills fish or causes such rampant stream pollution that the DEQ steps in to enforce the state’s clean water law and levy fines up to $25,000 a day.

Another problem is the loss of private property value and quality of life. Jerry Burns, for instance, is one of many state residents whose life has been turned upside down by the invasive odors of the swine production plant down the road. He also is a retired farmer who is concerned about the environmental, economic, and public health effects of an increasing number of industrial-scale livestock operations in Ionia County, where three generations of his family have farmed.

A typical 2,000-hog production plant generates as much fecal contamination as a city of 15,000. But unlike cities, which are required to treat human wastes and are stringently regulated to prevent water contamination, large livestock operations have no obligation to take the steps required to prevent pollution.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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