Lansing, MI –Michigan’s new permit governing how the state’s nearly 300 factory farms manage the millions of gallons of waste they generate for the next five years is an improvement over previous permits, but leaves key issues effectively unaddressed, according to Great Farms Great Lakes, a coalition of national environmental organizations including Food & Water Action, Sierra Club, and Public Justice.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s 2020 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for factory farms goes into effect today, after a year of stakeholder meetings, public input and deliberation. The Great Farms Great Lakes Coalition encouraged over 1,200 advocates to submit comments on the draft permit to the state, and the coalition submitted its own detailed technical comments last December.
The 2020 NPDES Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations General Permit makes a few long-overdue improvements such as a ban on the land application of animal waste from January through March, but remains largely ineffective in actually controlling water pollution related to industrial animal agriculture. The permit ignores the science concerning polluted watersheds and allows too many exceptions and “get-out-of-jail-free” cards for waste application in months where the freeze-thaw cycle is unpredictable. It also leaves the door wide open for manure-to-energy schemes.
Of greatest concern to the coalition are these gaps in the new permit:
- The permit relies on “best management practices” such as buffer strips and vegetation rather than stricter regulations to stop the flow of nutrients from liquid manure, such as the dissolved phosphorus that drives the toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie. This ignores the reality of miles of perforated pipes known as tiles underneath farm fields that serve as direct conduits for the dissolved nutrients to nearby waterways.
- The January-March manure spreading ban still contains exceptions that allow the practice to continue at the riskiest time of year under certain conditions if “immediate incorporation” of the waste by injection takes place. Yet soil injection will only better position the waste to make its way to nearby waters via underground tiles.
- Without established standards or water quality data to back it up, the state assumes compliance with the new permit and best management practices mean a factory farm in a federally “impaired” watershed will automatically meet total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for nutrient pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen.
- The permit ignores the many problems related to “manure digesters” that produce biogas energy but still leave waste and nutrients behind.
Advocates have been pushing for years for a complete ban on the application of waste on frozen and snow-covered ground in Michigan as well as compliance with the US EPA’s TMDLs for pollutants allowed in designated “impaired waters,” and an end to the questionable practice of factory farm biogas production. EGLE’s stakeholder and public hearing process for the new permit held promise that Michigan would turn a corner with changes in the permit that would finally meaningfully address the nutrient pollution from animal agriculture that plagues our inland waters and Great Lakes. Unfortunately, the 2020 permit fails to guarantee that factory farms will not further impair Michigan’s waters.
Statements from Members of the Great Farms Great Lakes Coalition:
Food & Water Action Senior Organizer Rebecca Wolf:
“While this permit is a testament to the power of people coming together and holding polluters accountable, it needed to create full protections from the most egregious forms of manure pollution. EGLE has clearly missed this opportunity, and we will continue to urge Governor Whitmer and the state legislature to take immediate and comprehensive action on factory farm pollution. This is a critical moment for the future of Lake Erie and Michigan’s waters. We’ll continue to demand a future of sustainable, pasture-based family farming--where Michigan is leading the way.”
Gail Philbin, Director of the Michigan Sierra Club:
“After more than two decades of battling factory farm pollution in Michigan, we were encouraged by the changes proposed during the permit stakeholder and public comment process to address the huge environmental and health problems caused by large-scale livestock facilities. However, the limited steps taken in the final permit fall short of what's needed and represent a missed opportunity to add real protections to seriously address current water quality issues and set us on a course for a better environmental and economic future."
Jessica Culpepper, Director of Public Justice’s Food Project:
“The pollution control measures included in the 2020 CAFO permit represent a positive step, but a set of regulations that leaves the door open for factory farms applying any manure in winter is not a full commitment to the health and well-being of Michiganders. Likewise, it is disappointing that factory farm biogas - a false climate solution designed to entrench the current food system at the expense of independent producers and rural communities - is not rejected outright by Michigan’s government.”