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Opinion: We’re changing the rules for factory farms in Michigan | Opinion

By Gail Philbin and Rebecca Wolf

We’re changing the rules for factory farms in Michigan. But the commonsense gains we’ve made are under attack by Big Ag. Even so, we know it’s not inevitable that factory farms continue to dominate our food supply at the expense of healthy and sustainable family farms.

Michigan alone contains 272 factory farms, or “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), as they are known in regulatory parlance. These operations are anything but small businesses with a few dozen cows or hogs. They’re industrial-scale operations with thousands of animals that produce enormous amounts of waste — waste that contains a toxic slurry of manure, chemicals, pathogens and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. This waste runs off frozen and snow-covered fields, into our lakes and streams, and is a major contributor to the toxic algae blooms that shut down Toledo’s drinking water and make swimming and fishing in Lake Erie a potentially deadly experience.

Every five years, the state is required to revisit the permitting process for factory farms and the public is invited to comment on the new permit. The next five-year permit will take effect in April 2020, which gives us an important opportunity to fight for better protections for Michigan communities, drinking water and our Great Lakes.

The Great Farms Great Lakes coalition has been leading a movement to improve this permit and our efforts have resulted in some meaningful improvements in the draft permit. The most significant of these is banning the application of manure on snow-covered or frozen ground from January through the third week in March. Even so, the industry is pushing back against even this necessary, common sense revision, and now we have to go toe-to-toe with the Big Ag to defend it.

Ultimately, we need a full ban on this kind of manure spreading rather than an arbitrary window. Manure can run off frozen and snow-covered land or make its way through underground drainage tiles toward the Great Lakes at many times of the year. The draft permit contains a partial ban and while it’s an important step in the right direction, we need the CAFO 2020 Permit to do more — we need a full ban on manure spreading on frozen and snow-covered ground.

Across the state, our coalition has held numerous community meetings where we’ve heard from hundreds of people about their concerns and about the threat factory farms pose for their water, communities, and special places. Hundreds more concerned residents have called into Gov. Whitmer’s office to demand that she support a ban on manure spreading on frozen and snow-covered ground, completely.

But, there is still more work to be done. The Montague community is battling a permit for a 4,000 head hog facility. In Mount Pleasant, community members are fighting a 4,800 head hog facility. Both of these proposed factory farms threaten local waterways, but also contribute to the contamination of Lakes Michigan and Huron, endangering our most important water resources.

The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has moved the needle on water protections under the leadership of Gov. Whitmer, but we still need to fight to make this new general permit as strong as possible — and in the face of strong industry opposition.

We cannot sacrifice our fundamental rights to clean water, to a healthy climate and to peoples’ health in the name of corporate gain. As the largest freshwater system in the world, Michigan’s Great Lakes are essential to the health and wellbeing of all who depend upon it.

Now, the CAFO 2020 Permit is open for public comment. We’ll have to live with this new general permit for the next five years, and we cannot afford another five years of algal blooms, contaminated water, and pollution from factory farms. This is a critical opportunity to demand better protections from factory farms. Stand up for clean water, healthy communities and a better future by submitting comments on the CAFO 2020 Permit today.

You can submit a comment here: https://fwwat.ch/CAFO2020.

About the authors: Gail Philbin (left) is the director of the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club. Rebecca Wolf is a senior organizer at Food & Water Action.

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