Ag: DEQ Files Suit Against Large Dairies (Sept., 2003)

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

There’s just too much manure.

That’s the contention of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), as stated in a press release issued last week. The agency is taking unprecedented action against the owners of the two Vreba-Hoff dairies located between Morenci and Hudson.

maure-pit The DEQ announced Sept. 16 that a civil lawsuit was filed, charging the company with repeated unlawful discharge of agricultural wastes into state waters.

Vreba-Hoff representatives stated in a response that “any alleged problems have been worked out with the agency.”

“We’ve had a very cooperative relationship in working with the DEQ to meet requirements,” said Cecilia Conrad of the Vreba-Hoff office in Wauseon. That’s why we’re very disappointed that they’re taking this action.”

According to a statement issued by Vreba-Hoff, the company “contends that the DEQ is utilizing the lawsuits as a legal means to interrupt the consent decree entered into with Vreba-Hoff in 2002.”

Patricia Spitzley of the DEQ’s information office said that’s not the case.

“They’re not complying,” she said. “A consent order is an agreement between two parties and they haven’t complied.”

On Jan. 31 of this year, the DEQ fined each of the Vreba-Hoff dairies $15,000 for violations and presented the owners with a list of corrective actions. These included the creation of a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan for handling manure; construction of a silage runoff control system; and identification of all tile lines in fields where nutrients are applied.

Conway said the nutrient management plan has already been submitted, along with engineering plans for handling storm water. The DEQ has yet to approve the plans, she said.

“We need their approval to act,” she noted. “It goes both ways.”

In addition, the consent order directed farm owners to manage wastes in a way that prevents unlawful discharges of manure and silage runoff into surface waters.

The DEQ suit alleges that numerous discharges have occurred from both Vreba-Hoff farms—located on US-127 and on Dillon Highway—contaminating drains and streams that lead to Bean Creek, Lime Lake and Fischer Lake.

Water monitoring efforts have detected high levels of phosphorus, ammonia and E. coli bacteria. In addition, naturally occurring oxygen levels in impacted water have been “seriously depleted.”

“After every incident, we’ve worked with the DEQ to make corrections,” Conway said. “We’ve changed our practices with each incident. We try very hard to prevent additional discharges.”

In Vreba-Hoff’s response to the lawsuit, company officials stated they would not “bow to strong arm tactics…by the DEQ in its attempt to politically demonstrate its enforcement efforts of large livestock facilities.”

Barry Selden, chief of the DEQ’s Enforcement Unit in the Water Division, said the decision to file suit is simply an effort to prevent illegal discharges.

“The DEQ was not able to reach an agreement on the necessary corrective actions that Vreba-Hoff must complete to prevent all future illegal discharges,” Selden said. “DEQ initiated the litigation to pursue resolution of the myriad of violations in accordance with the requirement of state and federal law.”

Vreba-Hoff’s response emphasizes its good working relationship with the DEQ and states that problems have been worked out cooperatively, but Spitzley doesn’t see the situation in that light.

“They’ve been given deadline after deadline,” she said. “They’d been warned that they would be sued. They were given many opportunities.”

Selden also stated that the farm owners were well aware that a lawsuit would be initiated without the required corrective action.

Too much manure

According to the suit, the majority of the discharges were due to inappropriate land application of manure and improper management of storm water.

The DEQ is requesting that Ingham County judge James Giddings require Vreba-Hoff to evaluate the design and management of its operation to assure the elimination of illegal discharges. Necessary changes could include a reduction in the number of livestock on the two farms.

“Vreba-Hoff shall assure that its agricultural operation achieves a balance between agricultural waste production and waste utilization and/or proper disposal at the facilities it owns and operates in Michigan,” according to the DEQ press statement.

Vreba-Hoff has approximately 2,500 head of cattle at the Dillon Highway facility and 3,000 at the US-127 farm. Manure is stored in lagoons at each facility and applied to fields as fertilizer.

The lawsuit cites five incidents of manure-laden water in the Medina Drain during the month of March, after the initial consent order was issued. A notice letter was sent from the DEQ on April 3. Another letter written April 16 addressed concerns about the application of manure on frozen or snow covered fields.

Another letter was sent July 16 in reference to the report of manure-laden water flowing from a field tile into Medina Drain. Those incidents all pertained to Vreba-Hoff I on Dillon Highway.

Additional discharges cited relate to the Vreba-Hoff II farm. A problem at that farm arose when wet field conditions precluded the application of manure. Storage capacity approached the maximum so some manure-laden water was transferred to earthen storage pits at the other farm.

There were additional problems with contaminated storm water discharging into ditches at Vreba-Hoff II.

“The defendant is producing more agricultural waste than it can properly utilize and manage at the two facilities,” the suit contends.

Because waste from the two facilities was commingled, the DEQ now considers the two farms as one unit with more than 5,000 animal units. A farm of that size must obtain a groundwater discharge permit. Vreba-Hoff would become the first agricultural facility in Michigan required to obtain the permit.

The suit calls for several other measures, including halting the application of liquid manure in the winter without permission from the DEQ; directing storm water and production waste water to proper storage, rather than utilizing temporary impounding areas; and identifying field tile outlets and the depth of field tile.

Conway sees the lawsuit as clouding the situation.

“It’s not a totally adversarial relationship with the DEQ,” she said.

For example, the agency has been at their farms to create a training video to show the proper application of manure.

“We’ll be moving forward with negotiations,” she said, “although most of the issues have been agreed to in the consent agreement.”

Although the lawsuit calls for fines of $25,000 a day for every violation, the entire penalty might not be assessed, Spitzley said, depending on action by the judge and on any pretrial resolution.

“The ball is in Vreba-Hoff’s court,” she said. “If they want to come up with an acceptable plan, we’re all for it. The ultimate goal is compliance.”

    - Sept, 24, 2003

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