By DAVID GREEN
State Line Observer
At a Seneca Township meeting in 2004, area residents discussed the expansion of a hog farm and expressed environmental concerns about the spread of large dairies in the county.
With the state law forbidding discharges that violate water quality standards, it was said, there would always be occasional illegal discharges of manure—unless the law were changed.
That could become a reality.
A series of proposed bills would bring significant change to Michigan agriculture, touching on topics ranging from the discharge of manure into streams to the filing of complaints by citizens. The bills were voted out of the house agriculture committee last month and will move on to a vote by state representatives.
Michigan legislators can’t exempt the state from the federal Clean Water Act. The discharge of pollutants into surface waters is illegal. But one provision in the new bills would provide a partial exemption for agriculture. If manure-laden water runs off a field following a rain or snow melt, the discharge would be reclassified as “agricultural storm water” and no longer be subject to a citation by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
While the bills are receiving strong support from the Michigan Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations, environmental groups are joined by DEQ administrators in voicing opposition.
At the heart of the new regulations is the transfer of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) into state statute. Farmers could earn verification through the voluntary MAEAP program and avoid the need to obtain a federal pollutant discharge permit (NPDES).
A nonpartisan study of the bills provided by the House Legislative Analysis Section describes the bills as transferring authority over certain environmental laws concerning the agriculture industry from the DEQ to the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA).
HB 5711: The legislative analysis states that any farming operation verified by MEAEP would not be considered to have violated any provisions in the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act unless the farm or person responsible knowingly and recklessly caused impairment of the natural resources of the state.
In addition, if manure is applied in accordance with a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) developed under MEAEP, any precipitation-related discharge of manure would be considered to be an “agricultural storm water discharge” and exempt from water protection rules.
HB 5711 is the part of the proposal that has critics referring to the package as a right-to-pollute law. Janet Kauffman of the Bean/Tiffin Watershed Coalition sees big loopholes in the proposed legislation.
“Most discharges in this area occur following the application of liquid manure to tiled fields,” she said. “Now, CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] cannot allow manure to discharge and violate water quality standards. If they do, the DEQ can enforce the law.
“Under these bills, livestock operations could not be charged with a violation because they were ‘within the CNMP’. They know this is wrong, to say that polluted water is not polluted water. This bill would change the most fundamental water protection law we have in Michigan.”
Michigan Farm Bureau officials view the proposal as offering more environmental safeguards than what exists now. Due to a federal court decision, farms cannot be required to obtain an NPDES permit on the potential to pollute, but only after verified discharges.
The new proposal, they say, would offer a proactive approach by helping farmers learn to prevent discharges. In addition, the MEAEP goes beyond the surface water concerns of the NPDES and also addresses issues such as ground water, odor management and emergency planning.
The Sierra Club sees the situation differently. By redefining manure discharges as storm water, a stream could be running black with manure and it would be considered legal.
Robert McCann, spokesperson for the DEQ, said his agency has concerns about the phrase “recklessly and knowingly.”
“You’re setting a pretty high legal standard with that,” he said, adding that the wording is ambiguous and would be difficult to prove.
Rep. Neal Nitz, a sponsor of the bills and chair of the house agriculture committee, described “recklessly and knowingly” as “more of a judgment call than a precise science.”
He was asked how the call would be determined and he stated that neighbors would know a farmer’s normal habits, and if he started doing things differently, they would notice.
He gave the example of a farmer over-applying manure to a field in order to finish the job before an approaching rain. Another example of reckless operation would be knowing about a leaking manure storage unit and doing nothing about it.
Nitz described runoff through tile lines as “not a big problem.”
“The people at MSU are not saying this is a problem,” he said. “It’s the other groups that are saying it’s a problem. I’ll trust MSU.”
Nitz wasn’t aware there are MSU personnel serving as members of a committee studying tile line discharges.
“If GM or Ford were being harassed like production agriculture,” he said in reference to groups monitoring CAFO operations, legislators would have pushed for bills similar to his a long time ago.
Nitz said only a small number of farms will be affected by the proposed legislation.
“It’s not going to protect every farmer in the state,” he said. “There’s only a small number protected under MEAEP verification. It’s a small percentage that will be protected under this.”
However, the Michigan Farm Bureau states that all CAFOs will be required to operate under a CNMP by the end of 2007—either through a federal permit or MEAEP verification.