Vreba-Hoff faces order to cut herd size

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

Two farms owned by Vreba-Hoff Dairy could face a court order to slash the livestock population by up to 40 percent.

A hearing is scheduled Monday in Lansing to consider this and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) contention that Vreba-Hoff is in contempt of court.

The Michigan Attorney General’s office filed a motion Friday in the 30th Judicial Circuit Court in Lansing claiming that Vreba-Hoff is in contempt of court for “ongoing violations of a consent judgment” entered by the court in December 2004.

vreba-cowsThe judgment was based on allegations of discharges of manure and other agricultural wastes to surface waters near the dairies and land application sites in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.

In January 2005, Vreba-Hoff spokesperson Cecilia Conway said the company’s acceptance of the judgment was not an admission of guilt, and she called last week’s actions by the DEQ “disappointing” and “an overreaction.”

Previous consent order 

In a press release issued Friday, DEQ director Steven Chester stated, “This agency acted in good faith when it entered into the Consent Judgment with Vreba-Hoff, and had the clear expectation that the company would live up to its commitment to protect the environment. That has not happened, and our action today is to assure that Michigan’s water resources and the health of this community are being protected.”

 Attorney General Mike Cox added that his office “will work with the DEQ to target polluters and protect Michigan's environment.”

The 2004 judgment called for, among other things, the installation of a waste treatment system and the cessation of manure application to land after Dec. 15.

Vreba-Hoff has experienced continuing problems with the million dollar press treatment system, and wet fall weather has further hampered the farms’ manure handling capabilities.

As existing manure storage structures reached capacity, a new lagoon was constructed on Packard Road west of Bothwell Highway. Tankers began hauling manure from the farms to the new location late last week.

McCann said no approval by the DEQ is needed to construct a new lagoon, but approval is needed in order to use the structure. Approval has not been given, he said, and dairy owners are using it at their own risk.

“We obviously have a lot of issues with them,” McCann said, “and this is one of them.”

Digging another lagoon, he said, isn’t a solution to a long-term problem.

Before the new lagoon was opened, Vreba-Hoff began field application to prevent manure overflows. This prompted the recent DEQ action.

Alleged violations 

The court document lists nine violations:

• Failure to treat all agricultural waste;

• Land application of untreated agricultural waste;

• Failure to properly mark available capacity on storage structures;

• Failure to separate sand from manure;

• Two unlawful discharges to waters of the state occurring on Nov. 25, 2006, and Jan. 10, 2007;

• The land application of agricultural waste in the winter;

• Land application of untreated agricultural waste within the Lime Lake Basin;

• Failure to submit monthly progress reports;

• Failure to maintain a balance between waste production and waste utilization or disposal.

The DEQ asks for action by the court that will include sufficient treatment of all wastes and a “reduction in total herd size until Vreba-Hoff can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Court and DEQ that it can properly manage all wastes produced by the dairies without harming water resources of the state.”

The court order doesn’t specify a herd reduction number, but DEQ press secretary Robert McCann said the agency’s goal is to leave Vreba-Hoff with a herd size the DEQ believes could be managed properly based on the current conditions of the farm.

“Our own internal calculations have that around 3,700,” he said, “but it would obviously be up to the judge to make that decision.”

The two farms currently have about 6,000 cows.

Conway stated in a press release that  the motion's call for a herd reduction is an overreaction and not necessary to deal with the waste management issues the farms face.

"Improvements to the press system are being made daily, and I expect progress to continue at a fast pace,” she said. “To reduce our herd would mean unnecessarily slaughtering thousands of cows and significantly threatening our ability to implement the plan we've submitted."

Vreba-Hoff offered its own plan to meet its obligations from the 2004 agreement:

• Implement upgrades to the press treatment system installed last year to increase the speed and efficiency of the manure handling process;

• Hire a certified wastewater treatment operator;

• Engage three engineering and waste treatment consultants;

• Have on hand back-up equipment for contingencies.

Those actions match requests made by the DEQ, but lack the herd-reduction measure. The DEQ also seeks Vreba-Hoff’s plan for addressing lagoon capacity issues and a plan for bringing the treatment system to operational status.

At the show-cause hearing Monday, McCann said Vreba-Hoff will have the opportunity to go before the judge and respond to the violations alleged by the DEQ.

    - Jan. 24, 2007 

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