LANSING, Mich. - They call them CAFOs, which stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Those who support them say they are our best source of cheap and excellent meat.
Those who oppose them say they are a threat to our water supply, a major environmental hazard, and are places that practice unspeakable cruelty to the animals confined there.
And last week, the Michigan Senate passed a package of bills that will enable such farms to operate without permits, with less oversight, and in a way in which the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says will seriously endanger the water supply.
What is clear to everyone is that factory farms produce vast amounts of manure - nearly all of which is poured directly onto the land without treatment. How much are we talking about?
Some dairy farms alone produce as much sewage as the entire city of Lansing. State records show that runoffs from dozens of these enormous farms have polluted rivers and streams with potentially harmful bacteria from the animal waste.
Yet last week, the state Senate on a near party-line vote passed a package of bills that would make it much easier for most such farms to pollute the water without any oversight at all. State Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom (R., Muskegon), the bills' main sponsor, said they were designed to "improve environmental protection."
But the bills would seem to do exactly the opposite.
All but the largest farms would no longer have to apply for environmental permits. They would also, as the Flint Journal put it, "allow these operations to legally pollute the environment by changing the definition of 'agricultural storm water.'•" That means the farms would be free to dump untreated sewage on the fields.
Steven Chester, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, said these bills would "leave Michigan's waters at risk by crippling our ability to control pollution."
Three years ago, the state sued the Vreba-Hoff CAFO in Hillsdale County, precisely because the 120,000 gallons of manure it produces every day was getting into local waterways.
The farms eventually agree to spend $1 million to build a wastewater treatment facility to manage their wastes. Other farms would, however, be much less likely to be environmentally responsible if the VanWoerkom bills become law.
Indeed, they might serve to have a chilling effect on any complaints against factory farms. Hidden in the fine print is a provision that says that anyone who complains about CAFO pollution would have to pay the cost of "unverified complaint investigations."
Anti-cruelty groups say factory farms should be outlawed purely on ethical grounds. "They are born, enslaved, shot full of antibiotics, and murdered in a warehouse," said Gary Yourofsky, founder of Adaptt, a Midwestern animal rights group. "They never feel sunlight on their skin or grass under their feet. They are tortured."
The fate of these bills in the House is not certain. Most Democrats oppose them, but Mr. Van Woerkom said he is optimistic that his bills would pass, with some modifications.
You Can't Make This Stuff Up: Anyone who needed convincing of how dysfunctional Michigan government is these days need only look to last week, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm wrote a public letter to Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R., Rochester) and Speaker of the House Andy Dillon (D., Redford Township) "reminding" them that they had reached an agreement in May to raise both the state income tax and the state sales tax going into the next fiscal year.
Mr. Bishop immediately and flatly said she was lying. Mr. Dillon, who one might have expected would rise to his fellow Democrat's defense, essentially ran and hid. Eventually, he had an aide say he "would not comment on ongoing negotiations."
Why the governor would lie about something like that - if in fact she did - is baffling and makes no sense. But why, if there was an agreement, wasn't there the standard joint press conference?
What is certain is that when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1, Michigan begins it facing a deficit of at least $1.6 billion, with no money left in any rainy day fund, precious little left to sell off, and even less spirit of cooperation among the state's leaders. Something, and someone, has got to give.