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Who’s watching CAFOs? Vice president of the council and president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.

Dr. Kenneth Kornheiser is the founder and vice president of the council and president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.

Lynn Henning of Lenawee County comes from a Michigan family farm that was surrounded by 13 CAFOs. She is a field coordinator for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.

Bruce Washburn, environmental quality analyst for Southwest Michigan for the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, is responsible for three counties and 60 farms.

Lynn Henning and Bruce Washburn answer questions at the conclusion of their individual presentations. About 65 people in the audience listen to the program at the annual meeting of the Four-Township Water Resources Council Inc. Monday at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

Who’s watching CAFOs?

Rebecca Pierce Editor

They call them “Flint farms.”

Lynn Henning of Lenawee County said that’s how some refer to concentrated animal feeding operations that have contaminated water in their communities.

Henning said she comes from a Michigan family farm that was surrounded by 13 of these operations.

Representing the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, she spoke at the annual meeting of the Four-Township Water Resources Council Inc. Monday at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station on Gull Lake.

The council is a nonprofit organization created to educate and support the watersheds that pass through Barry and Prairieville townships in Barry County, and Ross and Richland townships in Kalamazoo County.

“The four-township area watersheds have had productive livestock and crop farms for generations,” its newsletter notes. “As with many other industries, there has been a gradual process of consolidation with numerous small family farms being replaced by a few much larger farms.”

Dr. Kenneth Kornheiser is the founder and vice president of the council and president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.

Kornheiser told the audience of about 65 people that these large concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, produce a lot of manure in a small area.

“Manure is not just feces; it’s mixed with other material, most of it organic, natural material that, for the farmer, is a source of economic value.”

Farmers have to feed their livestock. If they grow food, they have to fertilize it, Kornheiser said. “Manure completes that cycle. [But] if you have a lot, it can potentially contaminate groundwater.”

In the four townships, there are currently two dairy CAFOs, one on Cressey Road, just west of Lockshore Road, and one on Parker Road, along the east shoreline of lower Crooked Lake and the channel between Lower and Middle Crooked lakes, north of Milo Road. One beef CAFO is on AB Avenue near M-43; and a smaller swine operation is on Parker Road, south of Milo, he said.

“According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manure from a dairy milking 200 cows produces as much nitrogen as is in the sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people,” a council newsletter noted. “The two dairies in the four townships milk over 3,000 cows.

“This means they produce the manure equivalent of the sewage from a city of 75,000 to 150,000 people every year.”

The topic of CAFOs was chosen for the annual meeting to focus on concerns “about proper disposition of all that manure in a location with many valuable lakes and wetlands and where most of our citizens still derive their drinking water from wells,” Kornheiser said.

One of the issues that gave rise to the topic was the expansion of one of the large dairies in the region, he said.

The council received notification from the Sierra Club and found violations with manure applications during the winter that ran off into water and contaminated West Gilkey Lake, south of Alto.

“We provided public comment,” Kornheiser said.

At the end of the public comment period, there was a response in every case, he said, which was helpful to understand what was going on. But, ultimately, they found that these operations were all under general permits. And, if CAFOs are under general permits, “as long as they comply with a general rule, they will be allowed to continue.”

Bruce Washburn, environmental quality analyst for Southwest Michigan, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality – which is now called the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy – said a general permit is typically a permit that most facilities can operate under, “and it covers about 80 percent of our farms.”

And, in some cases, a farm operation may not require permitting if it doesn’t handle the manure directly.

For example, three farms in the region use an operator who manages the manure for all three, he said. “They move a lot of manure in a hurry.”

Permits are typically redone every five years, Washburn noted, and 2020 is the year for that, so changes may be made.

Kornheiser also mentioned generally accepted management practices, or GAMPs, which are enacted by the state Legislature.

GAMPs typically pre-empt local laws, he added, but part of what is in those GAMPs are statements that new agriculture enterprises must be in agriculturally zoned districts.

There are other references to zoning in the GAMPs, Kornheiser pointed out, even though GAMPs say they pre-empt local zoning.

“What is in flux is the actual continued reference to zoning,” he said. “A governor-appointed commission will make recommendations to change the GAMPs. And there is an interest in having all references to zoning removed. Should zoning be eliminated from GAMPs?”

Permit revisions and zoning references in GAMPs were not the only questions posed during the program.

Washburn described the regulatory framework that dictates his responsibilities regarding CAFOs and how manure is supposed to be handled.

“We have to work within the confines of the laws that we’re given,” he said. “Our law is to protect surface water.”

A resident’s well on a property adjacent to a CAFO would not be considered under surface water regulations, Washburn pointed out, since a well is considered groundwater. Farms wouldn’t come under groundwater regulations until they reached 5,0000 animal units.

Washburn said he’s responsible for three counties and 60 farms.

“I cannot be at 60 places at once,” he said. “That’s why I like this interaction.”

“If you see something that doesn’t make sense,” he told them to give him a call.

The role being described for residents was something Lynn Henning called “citizen scientists,” which she said are needed to effectively police CAFOs.

She urged people to be Washburn’s “eyes and ears on the ground.”

One listener in the audience said, “So it looks like there’s two things: There’s regulation and the quality of those regulations and what they cover, and then there’s enforcement part.

“What I’m hearing loudly is, if we don’t become citizen scientists and collect data, it may not be addressed by the state,” he said. “So, which is the bigger problem: Is it that we don’t have adequate regulations or we don’t have adequate enforcement of those regulations?”

The audience erupted in laughter and someone shouted, “Both!”

Henning said she believes Michigan is moving toward a compliance system rather than an enforcement system. At one time, the state responded promptly to violations.

“They don’t have the staff to do that today,” she said.

Henning reviewed the worst cases in Michigan, the so-called “stench alerts” for CAFO emissions, the blood worms in the stormwater outlets, air quality issues and health concerns.

In answer to a question about where Michigan rates compared to other states, she said many other Midwestern states are worse.

“I think we should be the example for the entire country,” Henning said, adding, “I think we can do a lot better.”

A field coordinator for Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and a Goldman Environmental Prize winner, she encouraged audience members to reach out if they have questions or need help.

SRAP works on donations, she said, so they can “go in and help educate communities.”

Monitoring CAFO operations requires a need for baseline testing, photographs, water monitoring and more.

“We’ll map out every field for every CAFO and watch how they land apply [manure] …,” Henning said. “We can do this and teach you how to do this so you can watch your own community.”

Kornheiser expressed the opinion that taxpayers brought the situation upon themselves by seeking an environment with fewer regulations.

“Your tax dollars pay for the regulation you deserve,” he said. As a result, “you get what you don’t pay for.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, Jeff Smith, one of the audience members, stood and told the group:

“What we’re all taking from this is we have to regulate ourselves.”

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