Swine CAFO Threatens Environment, Public Health along Lake Michigan Shoreline

By Tracy Dobson

Special contributor

Public notice in a local Michigan newspaper, the White Lake Beacon, in October 2017 announced a permit application for a mammoth swine factory near the Oceana/Muskegon County line along Lake Michigan. Called a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), this proposed pollution factory activated our resistance. Reviving Our American Democracy (ROAD) is a White Lake-area public interest group that has worked hard to stop this outrage ever since.

We strongly oppose the CAFO because it threatens to 1) degrade natural resources, including Flower Creek, Lake Michigan, nearby beaches, and the groundwater within the Flower Creek Watershed, 2) endanger public health, 3) reduce local property values and erode the tax base, and 4) undermine the quality of life for neighbors.

From the public hearing in January 2018 when 350 people gathered in Montague High School in unanimous opposition to our continuing years-long efforts to contest the permit authorized by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ, now EGLE), we have been relentlessly mobilizing against a massive industrial enterprise that threatens to destroy a peaceful and lovely rural community. We sued in the courts, filed a contested case at the MDEQ, led public information campaigns, sought and made allies, explored dozens of arguments and avenues, raised funds widely, and have urged the Muskegon County Health Department to become involved, given the large potential human health impacts.

This 36,000 square-foot CAFO was built 1.8 miles inland from the Lake Michigan shoreline. The 4,000 pigs multiplied by 2.8 batches per year will generate more than 1.5 million gallons per year of hog slurry (urine and manure) to be spread near the factory. The waste is too heavy to transport a long distance. The farmlands to which the waste will be applied surround tributaries of Flower Creek, which flows directly into Lake Michigan. Much of the acreage has clay soil, which will not absorb the waste when sprayed or spilled, and substantial slopes. Both factors likely will contribute to significant runoff pollution.

Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) contained in runoff, along with climatic warming trends, increase the risk of eutrophication and fish kills, along with harmful toxic and nuisance algal blooms. Runoff also will likely deliver unsafe levels of pathogenic microorganisms to recreational waters. Other nearby areas are very sandy, raising the prospect that nitrates (and pathogens) will infiltrate to the water table to contaminate groundwater, and therefore private drinking well water. More intense rainfall due to climate change could exacerbate all this. Amazingly, no factory farm setback is mandated by law from Lake Michigan or any other water body.

Beyond weak regulatory standards favoring the agricultural industry over public welfare and the environment, there were problems with the CAFO-siting process under the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) — issues ignored, including dismissal by state officials of credible scientific data, coupled with lack of public transparency. The state permitting process also is flawed. This arises in part because no single agency is responsible for overseeing the big picture and anticipating the consequences of this or any other CAFO, let alone combined and cumulative effects of the industry. State review is cut into pieces because of pressures from Big Ag on the legislature. Agencies are underfunded and hobbled.

Swine CAFOs are spreading in Michigan (now there are more than 200, with another 100 or so forecasted for the future) because of abundant water resources, cooler climate, and the recent addition of slaughter capacity in Coldwater (thanks to Pennsylvania pork empire, Clemens Food Group). Major swine “integrator” Fred Walcott, owner of Valley View Pork (VVP, based in Coopersville) helped broker this plant while serving on the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development (MCARD, appointed by former Gov. Snyder) with $55 million in state taxpayer-funded subsidies. Not yet up to its capacity of approximately 2.5 million hogs per year) because it is difficult to find workers yearning to kill hogs day in and day out, the Coldwater plant awaits the delivery of hordes of pigs from future facilities.

Flower Creek Swine, LLC, claims to be raising breeding sows to increase production in our region. Flower Creek Swine will fatten the sows to supply a VVP farrowing barn in Walkerville, which will, in turn, supply multiple finishing CAFOs; all hogs owned by Valley View Pork. And Michigan is welcoming the dairy CAFO industry — construction of a mega dairy processing complex and whey powder manufacturing plant in St. Johns is now underway.

ROAD commissioned two scientific studies with alarming conclusions that were ignored by MDARD, MCARD, and DEQ/DEGLE: 1) a hydrologic and geomorphic analysis of Flower Creek Watershed (January 2018) by Drs. Hyndman and Kendall of Michigan State University (eminently qualified subject matter experts) which projects that watershed levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, already high, will increase substantially, making it one of the most nutrient-laden watersheds in the Great Lakes basin; and  2) an analysis of Flower Creek water quality (April-October 2018) by another reputable scientist, (Dr. Richard Rediske of the Annis Waters Resource Institute at Grand Valley State University), which documented baseline E. coli impairment of Flower Creek and serious degradation of other water quality parameters. This provides a basis for comparison with future measurements. E. coli levels exceed the state standards for human body contact by four times. DNA analysis of frozen samples will confirm the origin of the bacteria, almost certainly excess dairy manure and not human waste from septic tanks. Both reports are available on the ROAD website.

Flower Creek has joined Little Flower Creek, which drains the adjacent watershed, among the sorry ranks of polluted Michigan waters. A “No Swimming” sign is a permanent fixture where Little Flower Creek traverses Meinert Park beach into Lake Michigan. The state environmental agency says the hog CAFO “won’t make things worse.” That is a pitiful consolation to offer the residents of Claybanks Township. Pig manure has yet to be spread but is expected in August (pigs were delivered to the CAFO in April 2019). We doubt the state’s assertion.

No attention is paid to the human health impacts stemming from the disposal of massive amounts of pig waste, which is untreated and therefore teeming with infectious microorganisms, despite an abundance of incriminating scientific evidence. Public health risks include infections from contact with contaminated recreational waters, infections and nitrate toxicity from contamination of groundwater/aquifers supplying private drinking wells, and respiratory ailments related to toxic CAFO air emissions.

Odor is given some, but insufficient consideration. Due to diet and physiological differences in the animals, odor from pig manure is triple that from cow manure, making outdoor activities in the area or opening windows unpleasant to hazardous. A recent jury award in North Carolina exceeded $50 million against CAFO operators for environmental degradation and nuisance. Iowa has more than 7,000 CAFOs and a third of U.S. pork production. The City of Des Moines Waterworks, which serves a quarter of the state’s residents, sued the industry for pollution of water supplies.

ROAD is committed to shutting down this CAFO and stopping the spread of more such outrageous violations of the public trust. Our organization has raised and spent $40,000 in 18 months. We need at least $20,000 more to carry on with our contested case with the state environmental agency and a related civil action for an injunction. More will likely be required.

The reason to alert the wider Michigan public is that this facility and the ones that are sure to follow, likely will result in a huge environmental disaster for Michigan and impose very high human health costs.  With lead in Flint, PFAS in Rockford, and hog waste in Claybanks Township as examples, Michiganders deserve better than their government is delivering. The White Lake area is still recovering from Hooker and Dupont malfeasance — let’s not allow a repeat horror to befall this natural resource-rich community. Let’s fight together to be “Pure Michigan!” We need to unite and “take back our water.”

More information about this situation may be found at ROAD’s website. Property tax impacts reports are viewable here, and here. For an infectious disease physician’s statement on potential health risks, click here. Finally, Sierra Club produced a compelling 11-minute video on this subject.

Tracy Dobson co-founded ROAD in 2010. She was a professor of Fisheries and Wildlife, as well as and Women’s Studies, at Michigan State University for 31 years and co-creator of the Center for Gender in Global Context. She led study abroad trips in Kenya and conducted environmental research in Malawi. A long-time summer resident of Montague, she is now a full-time resident and activist.

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