Let’s pollute our water!

How would you like to drink some liquid pig poop? Sound appetizing? Well, the Michigan Senate voted a couple weeks ago to make it a lot more likely that you'll do so. I assume you saw that covered in-depth on the news?

Oops — silly me. I forgot that the media was tied up with the gripping tragedy of Paris in the slam. One night on CNN, as the war raged on and our education system continued to crumble, I saw an earnest, 10-minute discussion of whether Paris's refusal to eat in jail was because she did not want the jailers to watch her poop. Well, now for the real tragedy, and real poop. One of the most nightmarish things in all creation is the factory farm, a place where vast numbers of animals are kept in conditions of enormous cruelty and squalor, meat factories.

Nobody talks about this, because too much money is at stake and we like being able to buy incredibly cheap meat. Purely on moral grounds, any person with the slightest decency should vote to outlaw factory farms tomorrow.

Yet forget that. Let's pretend animal cruelty is perfectly fine. Here's what you may never have thought about. Factory farms — and there are at least 250 of them in Michigan, probably more — produce more shit than you can imagine.

How much is that? In many cases, 100,000 gallons a day. That's right — every day. By the way, the owners of factory farms hate it when we call them what they are. The preferred term is "concentrated animal feeding operation," or CAFO (pronounced KAY-foe) for short.

What do they do with all that shit? According to the Associated Press, "Nearly all manure generated by CAFOs is spread on farm fields, and state records show that runoff from dozens of operations have polluted nearby streams with potentially harmful bacteria from animal waste."

Once upon a time, there were people in government who cared. One of the biggest and smelliest CAFOs is the Vreba-Hoff farms in Hillsdale County, less than 100 miles from Detroit. Four years ago, Vreba-Hoff was pumping 120,000 gallons of manure a day onto the ground.

The owners were Dutch immigrants who saw Michigan as an oasis of cheap land and lax environmental regulations. Eventually, after nearby lakes and streams began dying, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality took them to court. Vreba-Hoff soon agreed to build a $1 million treatment facility for the manure, and also to pay a fine and court costs.

CAFOs, in fact, are supposed to apply for environmental permits, which are, essentially, permits to pollute. As far as I can tell, the permits are often no more than rubber stamps. But applying for those permits and trying to follow the rules is way too heavy a burden on these poor millionaire farmers, don't you think? State Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom, a Muskegon Republican, thinks so. He pushed a package of bills through the state Senate that would make compliance voluntary for all but the very biggest CAFOs — those with 6,000 animals or more.

Anyone with the knowledge of a salamander knows what that will mean. "We are in favor of clean water," Van Woerkom blandly told the Associated Press, adding, "I believe there is more than one path to clean water."

Perhaps he meant the path was I-75 or the Ambassador Bridge, both of which lead straight out of Michigan. When I talked to Van Woerkom last week, he said that if anybody really abused the rules, why, the state could step in and put them back on the mandatory permit list again, tsk tsk.

How would anyone know if they were abusing the rules? Perhaps the state would step in if all the life in the nearest Great Lake dies, or maybe if all the children in the county do. Or maybe not. Van Woerkom says his bill would require any CAFO which has "had a discharge" to get a permit.

What a steward of our environment! Oh, the Senate did throw a couple meaningless bones to real environmentalists. Under this bill, the state would now annually inspect the structure and capacity of the "lagoons" into which every factory farm's torrent of shit flows, temporarily, anyway.

And — be still, my beating heart — it also creates a "Pathogen Reduction Advisory Council," which would "provide the state with regulatory recommendations to reduce pathogens in our waters."

Would it have any power to enforce those recommendations? Heh heh. The so-called environmental safeguards in these bills will fool few people. "These bills must not pass," Michigan Sierra Club leader Anne Woiwode said. "It would create even greater harm than already exists in rural communities."

But can these bills be stopped? Actually, yes, if enough of us do something pretty fast. Gov. Jennifer Granholm says she is opposed to the bills, but that means very little, given her flip-flopping track record.

Where they have to be stopped is in the House, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, but with a conservative speaker. You should write or call your state representative — now — and vow eternal hostility if she or he votes to make it easier to put pig shit in your water. Politicians are simple creatures, and the pleasure-pain principle is the key to dealing with most of them.

Great Lakes update: Some months ago I wrote about all the creepy-crawly invasive species that have come into the Great Lakes in the ballast water of oceangoing ships; pests like the zebra mussel and the round goby. The newest horror is the VHS virus, which causes fish to bleed to death.

Without any doubt, new horrors are on their way. Now, however, there may be a glimmer of hope. A coalition of environmental groups, led by the National Wildlife Federation, intends to sue nine shipping firms unless they start getting a federal permit that requires them to sanitize their ballast water before dumping it in the Great Lakes. Naturally, they should have been doing this all along, but a bizarre 1999 ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exempted all oceangoing ships from that requirement.

However, a federal court in California has now ruled that the law doesn't allow such an exemption. Any court fight could take years, so a sensible settlement might be an ideal solution for all concerned.

Naturally, the best solution would be for Congress and the Canadian Parliament to solve the problem with identical tough legislation requiring everyone to sanitize their ballast water. Michigan, in fact, passed model legislation in January, but one state by itself is meaningless.

Meanwhile, the water levels in the Great Lakes are now approaching all-time lows, especially in Lake Superior. Frank Quinn, a retired government hydrologist, says he has never seen the water so low. He's not sure of the cause, but thinks this is an excellent sneak preview of how things will be permanently in a couple decades, thanks to the effects of climate change.

Know that little cottage on the beach you always dreamed about? Well, it will still be there, staring at the mud flats. You may have to mow the beach too.

But it still may be worth it, at least as long as your hut isn't downstream and downwind from a factory farm.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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