Deep stink

Apr 5, 2006 at 12:00 am

Reading agricultural legislation is usually as interesting as a slow car ride through Indiana. But after getting wind that certain bills introduced last month in the state Legislature were aimed at allowing factory farms to escape environmental oversight, News Hits put on its shitkickers and investigated the matter.

Environmental groups cried foul after reading House Bills 5712 and 5714, both sponsored by state Rep. John Proos (R-St. Joseph). Their concern is that the proposed legislation would allow the owners of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), so-called "factory farms," to weasel out of environmental regulations. Normally, a CAFO owner has to create a plan showing its operations won't contaminate outside water systems. If the plan conforms to state water quality laws, the operation gets a stamp of approval from the Department of Environmental Quality. But the new legislation would offer farms that enter into the state's voluntary Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program shelter from the DEQ's prying eyes. The Sierra Club of Michigan is concerned that this voluntary program isn't stringent enough to control the CAFOs, which can be major sources of, well ... shit.

"The problems with CAFOs are massive," says Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. "The smallest of them produces as much urine and feces as 16,000 people every day."

For those of you keeping track at home, that's the equivalent of having nearly the entire population of Highland Park taking a daily dump on your block.

There are about 200 registered CAFOs in the state, each of which contains at least 1,000 head of swine or cattle jammed into concrete-floored pens. The waste produced by these animals generally isn't treated. Instead, it's stored in "lagoons" and then spread out over farm fields as manure. The pathogens borne in the waste are potentially deadly, Woiwode says.

Another concern has to do with a different type of environment. If passed in its present form, HB 5714 would ban anonymous complaints against CAFOs. It would also require the DEQ to charge the price of its investigations to anyone making a third unverified complaint.

Proos, who sits on the agricultural committee, says the proposed legislation is merely meant to bring more farmers into the voluntary program's fold.

"Our goal is to ensure that more and more of our farmers become ultra-compliant to the voluntary program," Proos says. "This legislation doesn't protect the bad actors."

But DEQ Press Secretary Bob McCann says this doesn't pass the smell test.

"The MAEAP was created as a voluntary environmental management program," he says. "It sets certain goals, but it doesn't take the place of a permit. This would be carving out an exemption for a permit that doesn't apply to anyone else in the state."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]