Environmental groups concerned Michigan proposal would promote unchecked water pollution

Posted on: February 16th, 2011 by Eartha Jane Melzer 1 Comment

A bill that would codify a voluntary pollution prevention program for farmers is moving swiftly through the legislature but environmentalists are concerned that it will excuse livestock operations from penalties for water contamination.

The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program or MAEAP helps farmers minimize pollution from their farms by teaching them to identify and address risks such as improper pesticide or waste management.

In his state of the union speech Snyder asked lawmakers to strengthen the program to “make it a seal of assurance, so that farmers who run environmentally-sound operations are protected from unnecessary regulations and frivolous lawsuits.”

Snyder’s suggestion drew concerns from environmental groups that recalled the Engler administration proposal to have voluntary guidelines replace regulation for factory farms under the Clean Water Act. Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment director Dan Wyant, however, promised that the move to strengthen the voluntary program was not an attempt to circumvent regulation.

But in the legislation now being considered by the legislature, MAEAP-verified farms would be exempt from civil fines if an unexpected half inch of rain causes manure to run off into water.

Storm water run-off from farms has been identified by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters as one of the state’s top environmental problems.

In 2009 manure from a farm in Sanilac county flowed into the Black River during a heavy rain storm and killed thousands of fish in a 12 mile long stretch in one of the largest aquatic kill-offs recorded in Michigan.

Matt Smego of the Michigan Farm Bureau explained that, under current law, if farms have storm water run-off from manure or other fertilizers they can be assessed fines of up to $25,000 per day per occurrence and the state can require that these farms get permits to continue operating.

“This bill would limit the scope of discretion available to DEQ,” Smego said. “It creates certainty in the regulatory model.”

MDA deputy director Gordon Wenk described the exemption from fines as an incentive for farmers to participate in the program.

“If they are doing the right thing and following good practices then we should recognize it in some way,” he said.

According to the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture the program has already had significant positive environmental impact.

Twenty percent of Michigan’s farmers are already involved in the program, which has kept 260,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering lakes and streams and prevented 7.5 tons of algae growth, the dept. said in a statement.

Water quality has been improved through the installation of 4,300 filter strip that absorb run-off before it can reach waterways and about 1,000 gullies have been stabilized, and almost 75,000 acres are farmed with no till/zone till or conservation tillage.

But the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club says excusing farms from fines will undermine the effectiveness of regulations. A draft position paper by the organization lays out the history and points out that the state usually tries to resolve such incidents without citations and fines:

For nearly two decades, Michigan experienced many severe water pollution events resulting from intentional or accidental discharges of animal sewage from livestock facilities. After USEPA began steps to take away Michigan’s authority over water quality regulation in 2002, the state began to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, including requiring water pollution permits for large CAFOs. Smaller livestock operations with recurring illegal discharges may also be required to obtain permits. Since then, the DNRE has worked hard to help these facilities come into compliance with state and federal clean water laws. The DNRE is currently working to resolve over 400 illegal discharges from CAFOs without writing citations. As a result of DNRE’s efforts, and those of the livestock facility owners, there has been a significant reduction in severe pollution events. While there are still significant problems with air pollution and groundwater contamination from livestock facilities, Michigan’s surface waters are cleaner.

But they also argue that this system only works effectively if there is the threat of consequences for non-compliance.

“In the attempt to get more farms to participate in the pollution prevention program they are giving them permission to pollute,” said Gayle Miller, legislative director for the Sierra Club of Michigan.

“MAEAP has value as an educational program, and the Sierra Club supports farmers’ participation in the program,” Miller said. “However, the voluntary guidelines for livestock operations are weaker than state and federal law, and inadequate to prevent pollution. It makes little sense for a livestock facility to spend the $25,000 – $100,000 to become MAEAP verified if the program doesn’t even satisfy minimum legal standards.”

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