By Zach Welcker, FLOW Legal Director
On February 16, 2023, FLOW (For Love Of Water) and 10 other environmental groups filed an amicus brief asking the Michigan Supreme Court to strike down an appellate court ruling that prevents the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (“EGLE”) from fulfilling its duty to protect Michigan’s waters from wastes generated by concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFOs”). CAFOs are essentially industrial livestock operations masquerading as farms. They put meat on the table by employing a process that is equal parts cruel to animals and destructive to the planet.
A single, large CAFO produces one-and-a-half times more untreated waste than the human sanitary waste produced by the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw, Traverse City, and Warren combined.
Our amicus or “friend of the court” brief focuses solely on curbing CAFO pollution. There are roughly 300 CAFOs in Michigan. A single, large CAFOs produces one-and-a-half times more untreated waste than the human sanitary waste produced by the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw, Traverse City, and Warren combined.
In order to avoid the costs of transporting all of this untreated waste for proper disposal, CAFOs spread what they can on their land under the auspices of crop fertilization. If they run out of room on their own land, CAFOs “manifest” their untreated waste for disposal on someone else’s field. Plants don’t need or absorb all of the nutrients and contaminants in the waste, so much of it runs off into Michigan’s streams, rivers, and lakes. This is why Lake Erie now turns green with toxic algal blooms every summer and E. coli contamination is widespread in our waterways.
CAFOs are a key reason “why Lake Erie now turns green with toxic algal blooms every summer and E. coli contamination is widespread in our waterways.”
In 2020, EGLE updated its 2005 General Permit for CAFOs in order to enhance protection of Michigan’s waters. Despite having succeeded in substantially diluting more stringent pollution-control requirements during the development of the 2020 Permit, the CAFO industry still was not happy with its new obligations. The Michigan Farm Bureau filed suit, arguing that EGLE cannot change its existing 2005 Permit without undertaking new rulemaking. The court of appeals issued a decision adopting this argument, and EGLE sought review by the Michigan Supreme Court.
Our amicus brief explains that, if left unchecked, the appellate court’s ruling will effectively freeze in place the terms of the 2005 Permit because the legislature eliminated EGLE’s rulemaking authority after 2006. Because these terms are inadequate to protect state waters from CAFO pollution, the appellate court decision forces EGLE into permanent noncompliance with its duties under Michigan’s two landmark environmental statutes: the Natural Resource Environmental Protection Act (“NREPA”) and the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (“MEPA”). The decision also creates a constitutional problem because the legislature’s elimination of EGLE’s rulemaking authority under these circumstances violates the legislature’s duty under Article IV, Sec. 52 of the state constitution to protect state waters from impairment.
To be clear, an EGLE victory before the Michigan Supreme Court would not resolve this matter to the satisfaction of FLOW and our allies.
To be clear, an EGLE victory before the Michigan Supreme Court would not resolve this matter to the satisfaction of FLOW and our allies. We ultimately think the 2020 Permit is insufficient to protect Michigan’s waters and intend to resume our separate, currently stayed contested case against EGLE following the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision.
Learn more: See more of FLOW’s original articles on CAFOs.