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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?