April 1st, 2020

CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, produce an enormous amount of waste and are one of the main contributors to nutrient runoff pollution in Michigan, releasing excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that end up in our lakes, streams, and rivers. An overabundance of these nutrients degrades water quality and can cause toxic algae blooms in adjacent bodies of water like the August 2014 bloom in Lake Erie that led to a water crisis in the city of Toledo.

During the fall of 2019, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), released a proposed update to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program for CAFOs. CAFO’s have at least 1,000 “animal units’ on the premise, need a permit to operate. One animal unit is equal to 1,000 pounds of animal weight, equivalent to about 700 dairy cows or 80,000 egg laying hens. The state estimates about 260 farms fall under this classification. The state has been delegated authority to issue NPDES permits by the U.S. EPA and is required to update the permit program every five years, with the previous update adopted in 2015.

EGLE’s new CAFO permit includes a combination of larger changes and smaller technical tweaks, highlighted by new restrictions on applying livestock manure on farm fields during winter months when the ground has the highest likelihood of being frozen and nutrients are unable to be absorbed into the soil. The prohibition will apply to the months of January, February, and March, unless there is less than two inches of frost, four inches of snow, the soil tests low for phosphorus levels and the manure is immediately injected or tilled into the field.

Farms will also be prohibited from selling this waste during the three winter months in question. There are, however, no limitations in the rule on transporting waste for composting or sending it out of state during winter months. In addition to the restriction on when it can be applied, the new permit rules require farms to now have at least six months of waste storage capacity at all times. There will be new quarterly electronic reporting requirements for waste application and soil tests must now be done using one of two approved methods to ensure manure application is necessary and meets standards. The allowable level of phosphorus in a farm’s soil has also been significantly reduced.

Although Michigan LCV recognizes the incremental progress made by EGLE towards fixing our state’s urgent nutrient runoff problem, the requirement for the Department to update the CAFO permit process at the five year mark was an opportunity to make significant progress on an issue where little progress has been demonstrated for years. This permit is a powerful tool EGLE could have used to quickly diminish agriculture pollution entering Michigan’s surface waters from a significant source. To maximum use of this tool, the permit should have included a complete restriction on winter waste applications without exception, a requirement for soil testing to be done exclusively using the Michigan Phosphorus Risk Assessment (MPRA) — a more accurate tool that takes into account erosion, runoff, distance to surface water, and other important measures — and strengthened waste management provisions, among other inclusions. In fact, the draft version of the permit included many of these much stronger environmental protections than the watered down final rule.

Incremental improvements are failing to significantly limit the amount of nutrient runoff heading into Michigan’s watersheds and are failing to demonstrate improvement on the ground. Opportunities like this twice-per-decade permit update must be capitalized on if we are to solve pressing environmental problems and protect both our precious natural resources and the health of our residents. This was a missed opportunity.