Environmentalists, Michigan Farmers Debate Over Pollution

By  | 

SHERIDAN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- Environmentalists want tougher state oversight for Michigan's largest livestock and poultry farms, but Kent Karnemaat would be happier if the state let the farms take the lead on controlling pollution.
Karnemaat's large hog farm is considered a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. Roughly 250 of the state's 53,000 farms have enough cattle, swine, sheep, horses, turkeys or chickens to be classified as CAFOs.
CAFOs, which detractors often call factory farms, have been accused of polluting waterways and creating foul odors, dust, gaseous emissions and other air pollution.
Nearly all manure generated by CAFOs is spread on farm fields, and state records show that runoff from dozens of operations -- not Karnemaat's -- have polluted nearby streams with potentially harmful bacteria found in animal waste.
Just recently, the owner of two CAFOs in southern Michigan accused of violating a court order by spraying liquid manure waste into the air and piping it onto fields was ordered to upgrade its manure treatment facilities and replace failing equipment.
Hudson-based Vreba-Hoff Dairy LLC was told by the Ingham Circuit Court that it must pay $180,000 in fines and court costs and reduce its herd since the company didn't seem to have the capacity to handle the manure generated on the two farms, which have about 6,200 animals between them.
Environmental groups have long sought stricter guidelines for large livestock and poultry operations and tougher penalties against those that discharge unacceptable amounts of waste and pollution.
But Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores, has a different idea.
He recently introduced a bill that would allow CAFOs that participate in a voluntary program administered by the Michigan Department of Agriculture to avoid having to get a surface water discharge permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Van Woerkom's measure is part of a package of four bills now being considered by his committee that involves state oversight of the farms.
"We are in favor of clean water and we are doing our best to keep that water clean," he said. "I believe that there is more than one path to clean water."
The Michigan Farm Bureau says the package would hold polluting farms accountable while offering incentives to CAFOs such as the one owned and operated by Karnemaat's family that take part in the voluntary Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program.
The state agreement that created the voluntary program requires CAFOs to apply for environmental permits by July 1, six months before the program is to end. The bills would keep the voluntary program in place.
The bills apply primarily to mid-sized farms like Karnemaat's. The very largest operations -- ones with more than 5,000 "animal units," meaning anywhere from 2,500 horses to 500,000 egg-laying hens -- are not included and will require environmental permits that lay out the limits each farm must meet.
Karnemaat doesn't own any of the pigs that he raises in Newaygo County's Sheridan Township but instead is a "finisher" who grows female breeding hogs for other producers.
The animals weigh about 40 pounds when they arrive and between 200 and 250 pounds by the time they leave. The head count varies, but he had about 2,900 hogs on hand during the last week of May.
Karnemaat has raised hogs for nearly six years primarily for their manure, which he spreads, untreated, on his corn and soybean fields as an "environmentally friendly" natural fertilizer.
"We keep healthier crops because of the manure than we could without the manure," he said. "We get a higher yield, our produce keeps longer and it's of better quality without commercial fertilizer. It's a more natural way of doing it."
The voluntary environmental assurance program was developed more than five years ago by a coalition of agriculture producers, commodity groups, state and federal agencies, and conservation and environmental groups.
Its goal is to help farmers learn how to identify and prevent environmental risks, and how to comply with state and federal environmental regulations. CAFOs that have had polluting runoffs aren't eligible for the program and must get a discharge permit from the DEQ.
Farmers can gain verification that they're in compliance with the voluntary program through education, farm risk-assessment and third-party monitoring.
The program offers guidelines on environmentally safe practices and gives farmers "a chance to show that they're doing a good job environmentally," said Rick Sietsema, an Allendale-based CAFO operator who each year sells about 250,000 swine for slaughter, raises 1 million turkeys and grows 2,000 acres of field crops.
Van Woerkom said he thinks farmers who participate in the voluntary program should not have to be regulated by state environmental officials. But several environmental groups say the senator is trying to exempt farmers from state laws intended to prevent pollution.
"These bills must not pass," said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. "It would create even greater harm than already exists in rural communities from CAFOs."
Environmentalists aren't the only ones who are concerned about easing restrictions on CAFO operators.
Murray Borrello, a geology professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Alma College, recently presented the committee with a study that found that CAFOs and the fields on which their untreated manure are spread had significantly great impact on nearby surface waters.
He recommended that lawmakers refrain from taking any action that would ease restrictions on large farms.
"Now is the time for us to really look at what impact these are having," he said.