By DAVID GREEN
For years the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has heard complaints about the two Vreba-Hoff dairies northwest of Morenci, but the complaints have mostly come from environmental groups and individuals monitoring farming practices and water quality.
Last week the agency heard from a different group: the neighbors.
At a public hearing Thursday night at Hudson Middle School, more than two dozen people out of a crowd of more than 160 walked to the microphone and told why they oppose granting permits to the Waldron Dairy and Vreba-Hoff I and II.
Testimony included anecdotal reports of farming operations, along with challenges to the DEQ to hold the dairy operators accountable for their actions.
The hearing was scheduled by the DEQ to collect public comment on the dairy company’s request for a federal discharge permit (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System or NPDES).
“All CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] are required to have an NPDES,” said Mike Bitondo of the DEQ’s Water Bureau.
There are nearly 200 CAFOs operating in Michigan, Bitondo said, and most of them of permitted.
Legal issues have gotten in the way for these three farms, however. Waldron Dairy—known as Mericam with previous ownership—operated under a consent judgment from the state attorney general’s office after repeated discharges of manure into streams. A consent judgment is a voluntary alternative to going to court and results in a ruling enforceable by the court.
“We were close to issuing a permit two years ago,” Bitondo said, but then the dairy was sold to Vreba-Hoff and a new application was filed.
The request includes a proposal to increase the herd from the current 630 head of cows. Although the application does not list the expansion size, Bitondo said, a letter received in January proposes an increase to 2,830 head.
The Vreba-Hoff I and II dairies applied for a permit in 2003, but they also have operated under a state consent judgment issued in 2004 due to repeated violations of the federal Clean Water Act. On-going legal negotiations and implementation of new manure treatment systems have delayed action on the NPDES permit request.
The two dairies maintain an average of 7,266 cows and their growth is now held in check by the state ruling.
Bitondo noted that many comments made at the hearing were not directly applicable to the permit application, but those that were will be considered when the Water Bureau makes its decision.
Robert Day spoke of a county drain that passes underneath the Waldron Dairy containment area. Heavy precipitation events or discharges of manure send contaminated water into his yard, he said, a situation that has occurred six times this year.
Sharon Farrell was the first to mention two recurring themes: the application of liquid manure onto frozen ground and the heavy traffic of manure-hauling vehicles.
“Our road has turned into a manure-hauling highway,” said the W. Ridgeville Road resident.
Phil Hartley said that he farms north of the Vreba-Hoff dairies and he’s tired of discharges into the creek via a tile line that passes through his property. Hartley told the DEQ he intends to cut the line, which will eventually lead to back-up problems up the tile line.
George Cleghorn of Ingall Highway said he’s been surrounded by small dairy farms for decades and there was always a lot of aquatic life in the two creeks that pass through his property, but that isn’t the case anymore.
“This kind of pollution is not good for anyone,” he said. “They do as they please.”
Kathy Melmoth stated her opposition to expansion, saying that Vreba-Hoff has not been able to handle the existing quantity of waste without violating the law.
Melmoth noted that Mericam Dairy was cited for numerous violations and she questioned whether conditions would change for the better with management by Vreba-Hoff.
Janet Kauffman quoted a statement made by the DEQ—that the dairy “has proven again and again it cannot handle its waste.” She said the two Vreba-Hoff dairies have been cited for more than 140 violations and the Waldron Dairy was cited by the DEQ twice this year for manure discharges related to application on frozen ground.
“Their track record is enough to deny the permit,” John Klein said.
Former county road commission member Don Isley spoke about the manure hauling operations as wreaking havoc with local roads.
He acknowledged the company pays a lot of taxes, but in his opinion the dairy doesn’t have a good record of caring for the public.
Rita Mitchell told the agency representatives that citizens rely on the DEQ to protect the public’s resources.
“Do your job for us,” she said.
Mark Vandenbusche also challenged the DEQ to work harder for the public. When the permitting process gets underway, he urged the DEQ to play an active role in monitoring the farms. Another speaker agreed, challenging the DEQ to make sure the farms are following the terms of the permit.
Several of those speaking live east of Morenci and spoke about manure hauled into the area from an Ohio dairy where Vreba-Hoff once transferred manure to prevent an overflow at their own storage lagoons.
People living close to dairies spoke of application on frozen ground, heavy traffic by haulers—four vehicles within 25 minutes, one resident reported—careless operation of drivers, applying before rain, applying during rain, applying on saturated fields, over-application of manure and the feeling of being trapped inside their homes due to the stench.
A Sand Creek area resident said he isn’t against farming, but he hears from area farmers that this isn’t farming and it’s not what the creators of the state’s Right To Farm act had in mind.
With all the stories heard tonight, one speaker said, she questioned how the DEQ could even consider issuing a permit.
There was one speaker who offered support to Vreba-Hoff’s operations. Jerry Pettit said he’s had a business relationship with the company for four years. He said the dairy follows good farming practices and is “doing the same thing all the other farmers are doing.”
He has asked his neighbors about odors and he’s been surprised by the lack of complaints.
Many American industries are now operating overseas, Pettit said, and he doesn’t want dairies to join the exodus.
Bitondo of the DEQ said the agency’s permitting section will consider the testimony and written comments and create a summary document by mid-June at the earliest.
He hopes a decision about the permit will be made at that time, however, the agency might request more information before a decision is made.
Bitondo noted the state’s consent orders will remain in effect indefinitely until terminated by the court, if agreed upon by both Vreba-Hoff and the DEQ.
In the case of the Waldron Dairy, Bitondo said, agreement would also have to come from the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club because they are both parties to the consent order.