Michigan proposes new controls on farm animal wasteUpdated Dec 03, 2019;Posted Dec 02, 2019

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has proposed new limits on livestock manure spreading in its 2019 CAFO permit.

By Garret Ellison | gellison@mlive.com
LANSING, MI — Michigan regulators want to revise how the environmental risk from spreading livestock waste on farms is evaluated as part of a new draft general permit for industrial scale agriculture businesses that would, among other things, prohibit the application of manure on farm fields during three winer months.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ) is holding public hearings this week and next on its revised pollution discharge permit for concentrated animal feeding operations, commonly known as CAFOs.
The first hearing is Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Adrian College.
Public comment is open until Dec. 18 on the proposed updates to the state’s general National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program for CAFOs, which was last revised in 2015 and applies to about 260 permitted farms in Michigan.
The state released its planned revisions in late October. Farm industry advocates are blasting the proposed changes, saying they’re impractical, create new paperwork requirements for agribusiness operators and will put Michigan farms out of business.
On the other hand, environmental advocates say the new requirements are important measures that will protect water quality and improve public access to records. Some groups, like the Sierra Club, are pushing even further for facility caps on livestock head and a complete ban on spreading manure on frozen or snow-covered ground.
In Michigan, waste from confined animal farms is usually stored in large lagoons and spread on fields as crop fertilizer. While that can help increase crop yield, it can also degrade water quality when nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen run off into lakes, streams and rivers.
Michigan has delegated authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue NPDES permits and the state says its proposed changes were developed with EPA input.
EGLE spokesperson Scott Deans said the proposed updates were issued after several meetings this spring with agriculture, environmental and local government groups. The state is holding three public hearings this month in response to community concerns.
“There have been numerous discharges from land application of CAFO waste, especially during the past winter, and this has raised further concerns,” Dean wrote via email.
The permit revisions — a combination of big changes and tweaks around the margins — seem more weighted toward environmental protection than past updates, said Erica Rogers, an environmental educator with Michigan State University Extension.
“There’s a lot of concern out there in the ag community,” Rogers said.
Among the larger changes proposed is a ban on spreading CAFO manure in January, February and March, when the ground may be frozen and there’s higher risk of nutrients in the waste sliding into waterways rather than percolating into the soil. Some spreading could occur at the end of March with state regulatory approval.
Farms would also be prohibited from selling or giving away CAFO manure during those winter weeks and be required to have at least six months of storage capacity at all times.
The update includes new calculations on how much lagoon manure could be lost by evaporation, increased manifest reporting and public review requirements when farms need more manure than expected.
One of the largest updates is phasing-in a screening tool that would replace a simple soil test for phosphorus levels when assessing the risk of manure application. The Michigan Phosphorus Risk Assessment (MPRA) would account for erosion, runoff potential, distance to surface water or a field edge, subsurface drainage and vegetative buffers.
The tool would also consider whether the farm drains to an impaired water body that has low dissolved oxygen, excess nutrients, sensitive biology or problems with bacteria like E.coli.
The MPRA is already part of the existing CAFO permit, but environmental protection advocates say it’s seldom used because farmers can use a more forgiving soil test instead.
“It’s a really positive move in terms of water quality because it will give us a better risk assessment than what’s currently being used by pretty much all permitted facilities,” said Tom Zimnicki, agriculture policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.
Farm industry advocates don’t see it that way.
“It was never meant for regulatory use,” said Laura Campbell, agricultural ecology manager for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Campbell said the screening tool doesn’t take into account existing voluntary efforts that farmers may be using to prevent nutrient runoff and is likely to grade many farm acres as too risky for manure application, which could put some farms out of business. It’s one of many “serious, grave concerns” the Farm Bureau has with the revisions.
Although winter manure application is banned in some states, Campbell called a January-March restriction “arbitrary” and said winter spreading makes logistical sense at some farms.
Campbell said that, because the 2015 permit expires on April 1, 2020, farms had to apply in October for a renewal before having seen the proposed revisions. She wouldn’t rule out a legal challenge of some sort, saying the “way that permit is written is untenable for a lot of farms.”
“I could talk all day about the things we have a problem with.”
Zimnicki counters that federal law provides few avenues besides the NPDES permits on CAFO waste by which to regulate non-point source pollution like agriculture runoff, thus making enforceable measures crucial for widespread water quality improvements.
“What we’ve seen across the country is that voluntary programs alone have never been able to clean up a lake or major river,” Zimnicki said.
“The changes in the permit are going to lead to a lot of tough decisions and will require people to rethink how they manage and operate their land,” he said. “I feel for that side, but we’ve got to implement protections around water quality. That’s what the permit is about.”
Public hearings occur this and next week in Adrian, Grand Rapids and Lansing.
The Adrian meeting takes place Tuesday, Dec. 3 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Adrian-Tobias Center, 110 South Madison Street, Adrian. The Grand Rapids meeting takes place Thursday, Dec. 5 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Grand Valley State University Eberhard Center, 301 West Fulton. The Lansing meeting takes place Monday, Dec. 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Michigan Library and Historical Center, 702 West Kalamazoo Street.
Click here to read the proposed revisions and submit a comment.
Comments can be mailed to Megan McMahon, Permits Section, Water Resources Division, Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, P.O. Box 30458, Lansing, MI 48909.