Vreba-Hoff Dairy now owes $403,500 in fines 11.19.08

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality maintains that Vreba-Hoff Dairy’s latest manure treatment system isn’t working. Dairy owners say it’s operating just fine.

Nevertheless, dairy owners face a new set of fines totaling $223,500. Adding the fines levied in June 2007, the dairy now faces penalties totaling $403,500.

A mediator reviewed the DEQ’s charges against Vreba-Hoff and reduced fines by about $60,000. Dairy owners are not contesting the new fines, but they have filed an appeal to negotiate a payment schedule spread over 12 months.

If Vreba-Hoff’s request were accepted, payments would not begin until an additional 1,000 head of cattle are added at the dairy’s two farms located between Morenci and Hudson. However, an interim order from the state Attorney General office forbids additional cows until the new treatment system is certified as operating as designed.

Following litigation in 2007, both sides agreed to the interim order that specified procedures if disputes arose over implementation of the settlement reached last year.  The DEQ subsequently alleged additional violations in five consecutive months, from September 2007 to January 2008.

The case was presented to a mediator, retired judge Lawrence Glazer, who heard closing arguments in June 2008 and announced his report and recommendations last week.

Glazer upheld violations alleged by the DEQ, including the lack of proper markings in manure storage structures and subsequent overflows; failure to meet agreed upon construction deadlines for a treatment system capable of handling the quantity of manure produced on the farms; failure to correctly use the new treatment system; and failure to transport waste and reduce the number of cows to alleviate excess manure in storage structures.

The interim order issued in June 2007 stipulated a penalty of $180,000 for previous violations, to be paid in six monthly installments. Payment was to begin when the Earth Mentor treatment system was certified by an engineer to operate as designed. At that time, the cow population could be increased. Certification has not yet been obtained.

Vreba-Hoff told the court that the company is unable to pay the penalties at the present time. The dairy is asking that 12 monthly payments begin after the herd is increased by 1,000 cows beyond the current level of about 6,250.

The settlement reached in 2007 stipulates that no more than 100 cows a month may be added until reaching a maximum of 7,266, and only after the Earth Mentor system is certified.

Vreba-Hoff is also seeking to increase the size of the herd at its Waldron Dairy, farther south on U.S. 127, from 630 head to 2,830. The DEQ has issued citations for manure discharges at that location both before and after Vreba-Hoff bought the dairy.

“We would like to fill the barns so the cash flow is improving before making the payments,” said Vreba-Hoff spokesperson Cecilia Conway.

Approval of a 12-month schedule could come from a judge or from an agreement with the DEQ.

Vreba-Hoff spent about $1 million in 2006 to install a press treatment system to turn manure into compost, but operational difficulties prevented full use of the equipment. The growing quantity of manure led to the removal of animal waste to a satellite lagoon on Packard Road and to the Chesterfield Dairy east of Morenci.

The 2007 settlement led to a $2 million investment in the Earth Mentor system—a series of lagoons similar to a municipal waste treatment system that partially treats liquid manure.

“They claim the Earth Mentor system works and it doesn’t,” said DEQ spokesperson Bob McCann. “It never has. They have to get it operating correctly or the problems are just going to continue.”

McCann said the number of cows on the farms is not the issue; it’s whether or not the dairy can safely handle the manure produced.

Conway disputes the DEQ’s contention that the new system isn’t working correctly.

“It’s not expected to be at full capacity until next spring,” she said. “We’re not totally where we need to be according to the consent order, but the system has been working well.

“We moved more than 20 million gallons with a combination of irrigation and land application.”

She said the dairy has contracted for application of nutrients at several new locations as fertilizer costs continue to rise.

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