It’s Pigs versus Pure Michigan

It’s Pigs versus Pure Michigan
January 22, 2018 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now
Image courtesy of usda.gov

Will a 4,000 head pig farm threaten tourism and water quality?

The push and pull between Michigan’s growing agriculture industry and the need to protect drinking water, beach recreation and tourism continues to play out, evidenced by a request to establish a factory pig farm a few miles from Lake Michigan.

Photo courtesy of USGS.gov

Pigs in Concentrated Animal Feed Operation, courtesy of USGS.gov

The proposed Marsh Swine farm near Montague, Michigan would house 4,000 pigs in a facility known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO.

The request has drawn the attention of environmental groups and local residents who fear that nutrient runoff from manure could find its way to area waterways and ultimately, Lake Michigan.

CAFO’s are large, densely-populated facilities that house animals for meat and dairy production.

Manure produced by the Marsh CAFO that was once viewed as waste could be sold or given away to area farmers to be used as fertilizer. That’s according to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality project summary obtained by Great Lakes Now.

The MDEQ must approve the permit request.

E.coli bacteria previously found in the area that has periodically closed a public beach is likely coming from existing agriculture runoff, according to Margrethe Kearney, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Grand Rapids office.

Image courtesy of in.gov

Beach Monitoring and Notification Sign, courtesy of in.gov

West Michigan beaches bordering Lake Michigan are a recreational and tourist mecca known for spectacular sunsets and are emblematic of Michigan’s “Pure Michigan” identity. Any threat from beaches closed by E. coli could tarnish that reputation.

Kearney said when waste from a CAFO is sold or given away to nearby farms “there is very little oversight by MDEQ” on how it’s used. Kearney wants the agency to issue a tighter use permit that “will protect against further impairment of water quality.”

MDEQ’s Megan McMahon told Great Lakes Now that while the agency issues the permit to operate the CAFO, that permit does not apply to farmers who receive the manure. McMahon is a Permit Processor for CAFO’s.

McMahon said it’s up to the CAFO operator who dispenses the manure to keep a record of where the waste goes and how much is sold or given away.

She said “if the recipient provides false information or if there is an indication of improper land use, the CAFO permittee cannot manifest (give or sell) the waste to that recipient.”

McMahon says information of “improper land use” can come from a review of forms, observations or complaints.

 Red flag

That’s a red flag for Kearney.

She questions the enforcement effectiveness of placing the burden on the CAFO operator who has a financial incentive to not monitor the practices of the end user. And Kearney says it’s difficult for citizens to effectively check manure usage with limited time, expertise and resources.

Kearney told Great Lakes Now that while MDEQ has access to where the manure goes, getting that information is not easy for concerned citizens.

MDEQ’s McMahon says the agency provides free technical support for citizens to help evaluate water quality and she “encouraged the community to develop a watershed organization to address these on-going issues of non-point source pollution.”

That’s agency-speak for pollution from farms where the pollutant runs off the land to a waterway. Point source pollution, which is more tightly regulated, is best exemplified by a factory that discharges pollutants via a pipe to a waterway.

Runoff from farms is the largest area of non-point source pollution according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lake Erie’s toxic algae blooms are the best regional example.

Shift to corporate farms

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document on understanding CAFO’s says animal farming has undergone a “significant transformation” in production shifting from family farms to large corporate farms like CAFO’s.

Image courtesy of epa.gov

Components of Manure, courtesy of epa.org

The CDC document says “when properly managed, located, and monitored, CAFOs can provide a low-cost source of meat, milk, and eggs, due to efficient feeding and housing of animals, increased facility size, and animal specialization.”

But environmentally, the document says “the most pressing public health issue associated with CAFOs stems from the amount of manure they produce.” The report notes that CAFO’s tend to be “clustered” and that “the excess production of manure and problems with storage or manure management can affect ground and surface water quality.”

Image courtesy of cdc.gov

Resistant bacteria can survive and multiply, courtesy of cdc.gov

The pending permit for the Marsh farm near Montague is in Oceana County which has four CAFO’s and there are 77 CAFO’s in counties bordering Lake Michigan, according to MDEQ’s McMahon.

The public comment period has closed and the MDEQ told Great Lakes Now that the agency is “working diligently to make a determination by the end of April, 2018.”

ELPC attorney Kearney says that MDEQ “has the opportunity to include processes that are more protective of Michigan’s water.”

She also expressed a broader concern about CAFO’s.

As the number of CAFO’s in Michigan is increasing, how we will ensure they are not located “where you aren’t virtually ensuring overapplication of manure?


  1. Lisa 6 years ago

    Is it “Pigs versus Pure Michigan” or bad policy, bad government and corporate choices, the CAFO operator, and not enough support for farmers to do thing differently? The title of your article is concerning.

    • Lisa 6 years ago

      The article is great! Just the title seems to not get at the actual issues. Thanks for reporting on this!

  2. Karen 6 years ago

    It sounds like the MDEQ is putting the onus on citizens to monitor the effects of CAFOs on the environment and water quality. What is the job of the MDEQ? They seem to have zero concerns about ensuring clean and safe water sources for the people of Michigan. Does no one remember Flint? Or care that “Pure Michigan” is becoming less and less pure? We need to focus on the long term picture of our environment, versus short term profit. Farmers are important to Michigan’s economy, and proper and safe farming should be supported and encouraged.. But no CAFO should be approved in an area where it can ultimately affect our children’s health and wellbeing.

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