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E-M:/ Scientist, 88 year old Family Farmer highlights of Senate Ag Hearing on CAFO DeReg bills

The Senate Agriculture Committee today continued hearings on SB 501-504 and SB 447 & 448, with an even more packed house than last week.  After leaving many who asked to speak uncalled, the Committee adjourned without taking action.  Below are limited notes on the testimony given today - others present should supplement and correct these comments! (NOTE: I have taken the liberty of putting some comments in parentheses where a statement made is clearly incorrect -- please don’t mistake those as comments by the person whose comments I am characterizing):


The hearing started with a presentation by Steve Davis of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) who was asked to come answer specific questions regarding how NRCS standards are set, how NRCS standards fit into the voluntary Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) and how they fit into NPDES requirements.  Davis was not there as an advocate, and regarding some questions deferred to people who actually administer MAEAP, which he does not do.  His points were that the standards are designed to help landowners manage resources in an environmentally sound manner, and that if the standards are followed the expectation is that they will do that.


Called next was Dr. Murray Borrello, Director of the Geology and Environmental Sciences Program at Alma College, who had been asked by Senator Gleason to come testify.  Dr. Borrello presented findings from a study still under peer review which compared the upstream and downstream water quality at two CAFOs in totally different watersheds, one under permit and the other under MAEAP.  A goal of the study was to see if there is a difference in the impact of CAFOs on water quality as compared with other agricultural lands, and it was conducted under low flow conditions to try to minimize the impact of stormwater run-off.  Dr. Borrello reported that in fact there was a clear impact in both waterways downstream from the CAFOs, specifically with increased nutrients that were not present in the same watersheds next to other agricultural lands.  In response to questions Dr. Borrello also noted that E.coli bacteria levels were also elevated, and that in one of the streams this was of particular concern because it lets out into the Pine River just upstream from the Alma city drinking water intake pipe.  Senator Birkholz observed that Dr. Borrello’s research went directly to her interest in figuring out how we can assure that there is upstream and downstream testing of waterways around CAFOs to figure out the pollution issue. Dr. Borrello said that is clearly a very good idea, but it is expensive and so he is not surprised that the DEQ is not able to afford to do this.  In response to a question from Senator Gleason, Dr. Borrello pointed out that CAFOs have been considered “no discharge” facilities, but his findings suggest that CAFOs do in fact cause water quality discharges even without rain events.  If this it the case, the question then has to be what is the appropriate regulatory structure to address this?  He noted what he would really love to know is if a CAFO as a facility could be a sustainable agricultural operation, and that this is not known.


The next called from Kent Karnemaat of Newaygo County who runs a swine operation which is MAEAP verified and not under permit. Mr. Karnemaat suggested that MAEAP allows an operator to gain the trust of neighbors by showing adherence to environmental standards.  He said if he falls out of compliance, MAEAP verification would be removed, and said that MAEAP allows him to improve his operations.  Both he and others who testified appear to misunderstand the NPDES permit, and expressed concern that it would set an unchangeable set of requirements as compared to the voluntary standards (note: CAFO NPDES permits require CAFOS to submit annual updates to the comprehensive nutrient management plan or CNMP, if warranted).  Mr. Karnemaat was asked about how much he spent to become MAEAP verified and said $15,000.


Marguerite Zachel, 88, of Morenci was called next and started off explaining that she and her husband have farmed their land for the past 54 years.  Four years ago a hog CAFO put 4000 hogs directly across the street just 600 feet from their home, between two neighbors as well who were just a couple hundred feet away.  She talked about the lack of response from MDA to overwhelming stench, that MDA said this operation was in compliance with the standards.  DEQ on the other hand has been working for two years to try to get this operation to stop polluting the air.  Mrs. Zachel spoke of trying to process the turkeys they grow for the Thanksgiving holiday and having the workers develop severe headaches from exposure to the air pollution.  She discussed the contamination of Bean Creek from the CAFO.  As an aside after mention of the Farm Bureau, Mrs. Zachel said her family had been Farm Bureau members and had insurance through Farm Bureau, but five days after her 86 year old husband complained to Farm Bureau about their position in favor of CAFOs the Zachels received a letter revoking their insurance. 


Next, Russell Walcott, owner of Valley View Farms of Allendale, discussed his MAEAP verified hog operation.  He spoke of the emergency action plan for addressing discharges that may occur.  In response to questions from Senator Birkholz regarding what the emergency plan is in the event there is an overflow from a waste lagoon, Mr. Walcott explained the “freeboard” at the top of the lagoon but said he couldn’t imagine a rain situation that would cause an overflow.  Senator Gilbert asked if the freeboard was just required for MAEAP or for NPDES permits (the answer is that the freeboard is required for permitted facilities).  Mr. Walcott said MAEAP would allow him to add and change the landbase used for his operation and suggested that permits would not allow that (an incorrect assumption).


Testimony on behalf of the Michigan Farmers Union Legislative Director Dr. Sandra Nordmark was read next.  The Farmers Union vehemently opposes the passage of the bills, though finds some merit in SB 503’s efforts to regulate manure handlers.  In addition the testimony raised the concern that MAEAP verified facilities which had violations would nonetheless continue to be considered verified under MAEAP.  Senator Van Woerkom suggested that wasn’t correct (although currently there are MAEAP verified operations that have had in some cases very severe violations of environmental laws).


David Cheney spoke next, a farmer who does not raise livestock but has MAEAP verification for crops. 


The remainder of the testifiers today spoke against the proposed bills. Dorothy Nordness and Lydia Fischer, both of Ann Arbor, raised concerns about health impacts, water quality and the intimidation of complainants. Gail Philbin of Grand Rapids spoke of her involvement with sustainable farming organizations and raised concerns about removing regulation from the massive amounts of manure produced by CAFOs.   Rita Mitchell of Ann Arbor said “Michigan is too important to be used as a toilet for factory farms.”


The last to speak was former State Representative Ed LaForge from the Kalamazoo area.  Representative LaForge reminded the Senators of the debate in 1999 when the Right to Farm Act was modified to preempt all local siting and control over CAFOs.  He recalled telling a Farm Bureau lobbyist at that time that it doesn’t matter what size a CAFO is, what matters is what the regulations are.  He pointed out that Michigan’s role in the Great Lakes calls for this state to have the most restrictive regulations.  Rep. LaForge talked about how the legislation passed in 1999 called for development of voluntary Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPS) to address siting and odor, with the supposed goal of trading development of scientifically supportable practices in exchange for nuisance protection for operators.  However, he recounted that an individual appointed to the GAAMPS development committee following the law’s passage quit in disgust after it was clear that the Committee was being swayed by pro-CAFO forces, and not using science.  Rep LaForge also discuss that use of E.coli to track pollution from CAFOs is problematic because of the various sources, but that there are other clearer tracking measures, from growth hormone to estrogen and DNA.  In his final comments he noted that one grave and growing concern is the documentation of precocious puberty in girls that is associated with growth hormones.


The hearing from adjourned with no specific time for the next steps on these bills. 



Anne M. Woiwode, State Director, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter  - 109 E. Grand River Avenue, Lansing, MI 48906

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