Approximately 270 large livestock farms discharge enormous quantities of liquid manure to Michigan waterways every year. Photo by iStock.
By Dave Dempsey
FLOW has joined environmental allies in seeking to defend the state of Michigan’s new initiative that seeks to curb water pollution by large factory farms. Led by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), the coalition seeks to intervene in a challenge brought by the agribusiness lobby to the water pollution-control permit in order to raise legal issues on behalf of Michigan residents.
Known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the approximately 270 large livestock farms discharge enormous quantities of liquid manure to Michigan waterways every year. This waste fuels toxic algal blooms in Michigan lakes, including Saginaw Bay and Michigan’s waters of Lake Erie. The waste from dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs, and chickens in tight confinement also contributes to high E. coli bacteria counts, creating risks to human health and interfering with public trust rights to fish, swim, boat, and draw drinking water from public waters.
The CAFO permit is administered by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Because most farm pollution is not regulated by the federal Clean Water Act, the permit is one of the few ways the state can curb excessive nutrient — primarily phosphorus and nitrogen — and bacterial pollution stemming from the large livestock farms. The permit is renewed and updated on a five-year basis. The current permit took effect in April 2020.
An alliance of agricultural interests led by the Michigan Farm Bureau argues that the permit to protect the health of the Great Lakes area and its residents would cause economic harm to massive livestock feeding operations. Farm Bureau routinely opposes farm pollution regulations, insisting that only voluntary measures to control farm pollution are warranted.
Although not embodying everything environmental groups wanted, the new CAFO permit issued by EGLE last spring for the first time takes meaningful steps to control polluted manure runoff. Key features of the new permit include:
- More transparency regarding how waste is moved from farm to farm;
- New restrictions on winter manure application;
- New restrictions on allowable waste application rates across Michigan, particularly in impaired watersheds.
Environmental groups seeking to intervene in defense of the permit besides FLOW include ELPC, the Michigan Environmental Council, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Freshwater Future, and Food & Water Watch.
The administrative law judge overseeing the contested case brought by agribusiness interests is expected by November to rule on the intervention request made by ELPC on behalf of FLOW and coalition partners.