State proposes tighter factory farm regulations to control pollution

Enviro groups argue new rules don’t go far enough

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The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has announced the state’s new revised five-year general permit for factory farms, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

Because factory farms raise so many animals in one area, agricultural pollution from animal waste is often a problem. Excessive nutrient pollution and runoff from CAFO facilities, including animal waste, fertilizers and other chemicals, can seep into waterways and fields and cause bacteria contamination. The runoff also contributes mightily to Lake Erie’s toxic algal blooms.

According to EGLE, the 2020 CAFO general permit released Friday will further protect Michigan’s public and environmental health from the pollution while maintaining flexibility for about 260 of the state’s largest livestock operations to cost-effectively manage animal waste.

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But environmental organizations like those belonging to the national Great Farms Great Lakes coalition, which has pushed for more rigid regulations for the factory farms, argue that the rules still fail to go far enough to stop the flow of waste.

“While this permit is a testament to the power of people coming together and holding polluters accountable, it needed to create full protections from the most egregious forms of manure pollution,” Food & Water Action Senior Organizer Rebecca Wolf said in a statement Wednesday.

“EGLE has clearly missed this opportunity, and we will continue to urge Governor Whitmer and the state legislature to take immediate and comprehensive action on factory farm pollution. … We’ll continue to demand a future of sustainable, pasture-based family farming — where Michigan is leading the way,” Wolf said.

Carl Bednarski, president of Michigan Farm Bureau, said in a statement that agriculture stakeholder groups had weighed in on the draft permit this winter and are pleased to see some of their “significant concerns” were addressed in the final version.

“Michigan Farm Bureau appreciates the Department’s responsiveness and consideration of the agriculture sector’s feedback. … Even so, Michigan Farm Bureau continues to review the final NPDES permit details to ensure that it does not jeopardize farmers’ ability to stay in business while continuing to practice good environmental stewardship that protects water quality,” Bednarski said.

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The general permit would normally go into effect on April 1, but the state said that the issuance of certificates of coverage for the revised permit will be delayed for “at least 60 days” beyond that date due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The state’s updated requirements were developed through a permitting process with extensive input from the public and guidance from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). EGLE said the department received more than 2,400 comments on the draft permit during a seven-week comment period.

As a result of public input, some of the changes made to the 2020 general permit are:

  • Waste can no longer be applied to farm fields in January, February or March to prevent the higher occurrence of runoff during those months
  • Transporting waste for composting, treatment or to out-of-state recipients is allowed during January, February and March as long as the waste is not applied to land during that time
  • A change in the level of residual solids in storage structures from 12 inches to 6 inches
  • Waste generators must obtain soil tests from waste recipients before applying it to land, to ensure that waste applications to fields are necessary
  • A reduction in the allowable levels of phosphorus, to protect waterways
  • Electronic quarterly reporting of land application of wastes, whether the waste is applied to fields, sold, given away or transferred, will be required
  • A permit holder can use either the numerical Bray P1 phosphorous limits, with additional permit requirements that protect water quality, or the Michigan Phosphorous Risk Assessment (MPRA) tool to evaluate fields for manure application
  • An allowance for evaporation in the calculation of waste storage capacity as allowed for in federal regulation

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Jessica Culpepper, director of Public Justice’s Food Project, expressed disappointment that the new set of regulations still “leaves the door open for factory farms applying any manure in winter” and does not outright reject the practice of using factory farm biogas.

The new rules are therefore “not a full commitment to the health and well-being of Michiganders,” Culpepper said.

Michigan Sierra Club Director Gail Philbin spoke along similar lines. She said Sierra Club was initially “encouraged” by the proposed changes during the public comments process.

“However, the limited steps taken in the final permit fall short of what’s needed and represent a missed opportunity to add real protections to seriously address current water quality issues and set us on a course for a better environmental and economic future,” Philbin said.

The Great Farms Great Lakes coalition said Wednesday that its main concerns with the new permit are about EGLE’s apparent reliance on “best management practices,” rather than strict regulations on nutrient pollution; exceptions in the January to March manure spreading ban that would still allow the practice to continue under certain conditions; questions over whether compliance with the rules could still hurt federally impaired watersheds; and a lack of attention to “manure digesters” that produce biogas energy while leaving waste and nutrients behind.