Vreba-Hoff discusses new lagoon

By DAVID GREEN

Medina Township supervisor Jim Craig would like to do something to ease the concerns of residents about a new manure lagoon on Packard Road, but he doesn’t see any way forward.

After the issue came before the township board at its regular February meeting, a special session was scheduled Monday to further discuss the matter.

Construction of the 11.5 million gallon lagoon began in late December and tankers began hauling liquefied manure to the site in January. Vreba-Hoff Dairy built the satellite lagoon as the company’s other storage structures approached capacity.

Wet fall weather combined with breakdowns in a new treatment system led to an over-abundance of manure. The new lagoon was constructed before an overflow occurred.

The Packard Road location, west of Bothwell Highway, was chosen to place nutrients near fields for application, explained Vreba-Hoff spokesperson Cecilia Conway.

The location has raised concerns about damage to unimproved roads and about water quality. Some area residents are worried the lagoon could eventually leak and allow manure to enter drinking water sources.

When township board members met  Feb. 5, they faced a crowd of more than 30 people asking for action.

“Everybody who was at the meeting was pretty adamant about us doing something immediately,” Craig said. “But after talking to [township attorney Greg Grover,] we found out there’s nothing immediate to do. Now we’re back to square one.”

About 40 people—including six associated with Vreba-Hoff—attended the two and a half hour session Monday.

Grover reviewed his research on the issue regarding the state’s Right to Farm law and the voluntary agricultural guidelines known as the GAAMPs.

Grover reported that the suggestion of obtaining a restraining order to stop use of the lagoon would probably fall short.

“Just because you want a restraining order doesn’t mean you’re going to get one,” Grove said, noting that the board would have to obtain engineering studies to prove it was likely to win.

The township could not impose any ordinance that would conflict with state farming regulations without first seeking approval from the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA).

“The Right to Farm act pretty much cuts us out of regulation,” Grover said. “The state is where you have to go, through the DEQ and the MDA.”

Grover spoke with an assistant at the Attorney General’s office and learned that lagoon construction was never approved, but use of the structure was favored over allowing an overflow of manure from other storage structures.

Grover was told the Attorney General office believes Vreba-Hoff is making a concerted effort to address the problem. A hearing is scheduled Thursday to discuss the dairy owners’ plans to address the manure problem.

The state has ordered the farm owners to reduce the size of its herd if they cannot satisfactorily prove their ability to handle the manure.

Audience member Bill Travis, expressing the frustration shared by several township residents, told Grover, that 90 percent of his report tells residents   what they can’t do and 10 percent tells them what they shouldn’t try to do.

“I know what the people would like to happen,” Grover said, “but it’s not going to happen.”

Craig agreed, saying, “You guys are expecting this board to do something it has no authority to do.”

One township resident asked about Vreba-Hoff’s plans to expand when they’re having trouble handling the existing quantity of manure.

Stephen VanderHoff said that additional animals will not be brought in until the treatment system is functioning correctly.

In an interview last week, Vreba-Hoff spokesperson Cecelia Conway confirmed that the company has purchased the former Mericam Dairy in Hillsdale County. The 600-head dairy will also be expanded, probably to double the current size.

VanderHoff said the company has no plans to build another dairy in the area nor are there plans to construct additional lagoons.

He said the new lagoon is viewed as a temporary, backup structure.

“We prefer to use lagoons close to the farm first. At this point, we don’t even know if we’re going to fill it,” VanderHoff said.

He expects the lagoon will be emptied through field application over the summer and could remain empty until another extra wet year requires additional space.

VanderHoff said he does not yet know of the state will require the manure in the new lagoon to be treated before field application.

VanderHoff said the farm is having problems with the clarifier equipment of the treatment system.

“We invested  a million dollars and we’re going to make it work,” he said.

Conway stated last week that a different treatment system is proposed for the Vreba-Hoff II farm on US 127.

VanderHoff said he appreciated the opportunity to meet with residents and answer questions. A lot of misinformation exists about their operation, he said.

“I do apologize for not notifying people ahead of time,” he said, he said about the new lagoon, “but I probably would have gone forward with that site.”

VanderHoff thanked residents for notifying him about some of this manure haulers “driving like cowboys” and he will address the issue when he’s made aware of it.”

Craig appointed an agricultural advisory committee to discuss issues with Vreba-Hoff and any other farm operations.

    – Feb. 14, 2007 
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