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E-M:/ Sierra Club's request to MEDC to stop subsidizing CAFOs

Enviro-Mich:  Below is the bulk of a slightly edited letter Sierra Club sent to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the state’s economic development agency, protesting the use of tax dollars to subsidize CAFO construction in Michigan. The Michigan Strategic Fund Board (MSFB), which falls under MEDC, took the first steps to approve a $3 million tax-exempt bond to fund the construction of a new dairy CAFO in Midland County.  Another CAFO in Van Buren County has already been given $4 million in the same support by the MSFB, and a road has been built to at least one other dairy CAFO with MEDC funds.   PLEASE NOTE in particular that our request is that they authorize no additional support for any CAFOS until they had fully investigated the issues we raised, but as is clear from the press release in a separate posting on Enviro-Mich, MEDC has moved ahead with announcing support for additional CAFOs.  Anne Woiwode



Excerpts, with minor edits, from Sierra Club’s February 25, 2005 letter:


I am writing to let you know of Sierra Club’s concerns about the Michigan Strategic Fund Board’s (MSFB) decisions to provide economic development support for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  Last Thursday MSFB approved a proposed Industrial Development Revenue Bond (IDRB) Inducement for a CAFO proposed for Midland County.  This is at least the second such facility to receive this kind of support.  At least one other CAFO has had funding provided to build a road to its facility through the MEDC as well. 


Sierra Club’s concerns arise from both the process used by the MSFB to reach the decision last Thursday and the bigger question of whether the state of Michigan should provide economic development support to CAFOs at all.  We believe it is critical for MEDC to look carefully at this entire issue before allowing any other state economic development support be provided to this industry.  CAFOs are already heavily subsidized through federal government programs, and they undercut diverse and sustainable agricultural enterprises, depress property values and impose large additional costs on local units of government, in addition to being among the worst polluting industries in our state.


CAFO operations are defined by statute as large scale confined livestock or poultry operations that produce animal wastes at least equivalent to the urine and feces of 1000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, or 2500 hogs.  A CAFO produces wastes at minimum equivalent to the amount of urine and feces produced by 16,000 people or more.  Despite this large amount of waste, rife with pathogens and other pollutants, CAFOs are not required to treat their wastes, which is often stored in open lagoons until spread on fields for disposal.  While the Michigan Department of Agriculture believes that there are more than 250 CAFOs in Michigan, no one knows how many there are nor where all of the CAFOs are. 


Unpermitted CAFOs are required to have no water discharges while permitted ones are allowed to discharge wastes only in extreme rainfall events. Nonetheless the USEPA has stated that every CAFO is expected to cause illegal water quality discharges at some point.  The DEQ has never had sufficient resources to monitor CAFOs prospectively, but where MDEQ has closely monitored CAFOs water quality violations are frequent and often enormous.  For example, near Hudson where a volunteer water monitoring effort of the dozen CAFOs in the area has been pursued by a group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, since February 2000, 116 notices of violations of the Clean Water Act by the dozen CAFOs in that area have been cited by the MDEQ following complaints filed by the group.  The violations have ranged from E.coli counts as much as 14,000 times the state’s maximum limit for surface water to dissolved oxygen readings that have been reduced to the point of killing off all life in the waterway. In one set of tests we are aware of, conducted by a highly respected MSU researcher, cryptosporidium was found in a tributary to the Raisin River downstream from a CAFO with ongoing water pollution problems.  Pathogens from CAFOs have been identified as the cause or likely cause of some of the most serious contamination of public drinking water sources in North America in the last several years.


The MDEQ has only required environmental permits of any sort for CAFOs since January 2003, and that General NPDES permit was limited to only operations that have been caught discharging wastes in violation of the Clean Water Act.  In 2004 an additional permit to regulate very large new or expanding CAFOs was adopted by MDEQ; however the New, Large CAFO General NPDES permit is so badly flawed that Sierra Club is contesting it for violating the Clean Water Act.  Air pollution from CAFOs can only be addressed by the DEQ if the director of the MDA makes a referral to the DEQ, even though odor and air pollution cause severe impacts on communities and neighbors.  In Lenawee County, air pollution from CAFOs, specifically hydrogen sulfide emissions, have been identified by doctors as causing both acute and chronic health problems in the neighbors, including potentially life threatening impairments.  Recently, the federal government signed a “backroom deal” with the livestock industry allowing CAFO operators to obtain immunity from prosecution for air quality violations of federal environmental laws by paying a fee and agreeing to be available for a study that is expected to take many years to complete. 


In Michigan at least three Tax Tribunal decisions have awarded property owners adjacent to CAFOs reduced property valuations based solely on the problems posed by their proximity to the CAFO.  In Hartford, where a dairy CAFO opened last September, three agriculture related businesses are considering moving their operations or closing up shop as fly problems caused by the newly opened CAFO have posed serious problems for keeping their operations sanitary.  Agricultural tourism is killed off by CAFOs, as tourists are not willing to put up with the smell and flies and the businesses that would provide services are driven away.  While it is often claimed that CAFOs provide new jobs and commerce in the area, they are often responsible from driving out existing farmers, the jobs created usually go to low wage migrant workers, and in many of the operations value-added processing is not occurring in Michigan as the milk, eggs or animals are shipped out of state to be processed.  Economic analysis of the impact of CAFOs has been prepared by experts around the country, but the MSFB appears to be relying on hearsay statements in concluding that these operations would be an asset.  At the very least, an objective and thorough research of the existing literature on the impacts of CAFOs is essential.


Even if the MSFB disagreed with our concerns about CAFOs and decided they should support these types of operations with Michigan’s economic development support, the process used to come to the decision on Mibelloon Dairy CAFO was severely flawed and should be changed.  Based on answers to questions raised at the MSFB meeting last week, the MSFB staff apparently made little or no attempt to verify the information provided by Mibelloon Dairy that was used in their application for an IDRB Inducement to secure support for $3 million to go toward building a $7.5 million dairy CAFO for 2,000 head of dairy cows.  In several instances, I had elicited information the day before from the responsible agencies about both the existing Mibelloon Dairy CAFO and the proposal that was not provided or was inaccurately portrayed at the meeting, without correction by the MSFB staff.


MSFB staff was asked if the MDEQ had provided any comments on this proposal, and the staff response was that the MDEQ had not raised any concerns.  The MSFB meeting started at 10 a.m. on Thursday, February 17th.  At 4:45 p.m. on February 16th I spoke with a staff member in the office of MDEQ Director Steve Chester, who told me that although MDEQ was aware of this proposal, but until I left her a message earlier that day they were not aware that it was being taken up at the meeting the following day.  I don’t know whether they would have offered support or opposition to the project, but the MDEQ’s lack of input had to do with the failure of MSFB staff to provide them notice, and should not have been considered a tacit endorsement.   


The proposal is adjacent to a 1,000 head CAFO already operated by the owners and operators of Mibelloon.  The existing Mibelloon CAFO was cited by the USEPA for discharges that violated the Clean Water Act last year, a fact I verified in a discussion on February 16th with USEPA Region 5 Water Enforcement staff.   As a result they were required to obtain permit coverage under the 2003 Michigan CAFO NPDES General permit, which was granted in early January by MDEQ.  When asked about the violation, the representative for Mibelloon stated he had no information about a violation.   In my comments to the MSFB I raised concerns that the facility did not have a pending application before the MDEQ for a permit, which is required to be applied for 180 days prior to a CAFO having animals brought on site.  The fact that a permit for the original facility was issued in January and the lack of an application for the new facility was verified in a conversation with Mike Bitondo of the MDEQ Water Bureau on February 16th.  The Mibelloon representative, when asked by a Board member about this, stated that Mibelloon had an application in to the DEQ that was a couple of weeks from being issued and had received no comments so far.  This statement was clearly inaccurate, but the MSFB staff had apparently done no work to verify the status of any permits or outstanding enforcement actions.   


Lastly, in discussion at the meeting, MSFB members confirmed a previous decision to categorize an application from a CAFO for this kind of support as appropriately falling into the “solid waste” category.  However, the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act for Michigan explicitly excludes “organic waste generated in the production of livestock and poultry” from the definition of solid waste.  Many environmental statutes are designed to exclude agriculture related activities or by-products from regulation, and this definition of solid waste is clearly intended to assure that farms are not required to handle their wastes the same as solid waste.  Yet this ad hoc decision of the MSFB to provide economic development support under the rubric of “solid waste” related programs for CAFOs suggests that this industry should receive all the benefits even though it is exempt from all the regulations of true solid waste handling operations.  It seems quite likely that the MSFB is violating the intent and purposes of the Michigan Strategic Fund by providing funding for CAFOs as if they qualify for support under the solid waste category.  When asked at the meeting whether the Mibelloon Dairy was planning to use innovative techniques for dealing with the “solid waste” produced, the applicant’s representative described the operation as virtually identical to the hundreds of CAFOs in Michigan and thousands nationwide.  Any pretense of innovation should have been thoroughly researched by the MSFB staff, instead of allowing assertions by the applicant’s representative or any other presenter at the hearing to be treated as factual.  I would expect my comments to be verified as well.


I believe it would be the best interests of the MEDC and the state as a whole to critically examine decisions of MEDC which have been designed to encourage the development of the Mibelloon Dairy CAFO, the Hartford Dairy CAFO, and other CAFOs in Michigan, and put an end to state economic development support for this industry.  At the very least, the steps taken by the MSFB in considering these types of projects must assure that all essential information is provided prior to a decision being made that effectively gives the applicant the go ahead to start construction of a CAFO.


            I greatly appreciate your attention to this matter, but also want to impress upon you my sense of concern about the need to address these concerns swiftly.  Mibelloon’s representative made it clear that the approval given last week allowed them to proceed with construction of this CAFO almost immediately.  In fact, the reason given that the applicant himself was not at the meeting was because he was meeting with contractors to be ready to start as soon as possible.  The IDRB Inducements require that an application be submitted as little as 2 weeks before the hearing is held, providing virtually no time for neighbors, the MDEQ and others with factual information to offer to prepare to comment on the matter.  As a result, I would urge that a hold be put on any applications from CAFOs until the MEDC has had a chance to examine this issue thoroughly.  Although, as was stated at the meeting last week, this is not the last review that will occur by MSFB, it was clear that the applicant was ready to break ground based on the decision last week.  Even if not intended, the MSFB has created a situation in which the state’s economic development agency is endorsing and promoting this industry.  If that is the choice, we will take our concerns to other forums to fight this decision, but we would prefer to see the MEDC choose to change its policies on its own.


            Thanks for your consideration of my concerns.



Anne Woiwode, Director

Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter



Anne Woiwode, Director, Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter

109 East Grand River Avenue, Lansing, MI 48906

517-484-2372, fax 517-484-3108  www.michigan.sierraclub.org