HUDSON, Mich. - A Michigan Circuit Court judge has ordered two dairy megafarms near here to install new wastewater treatment equipment and to limit their herd size to what the equipment can handle.
The interim order Wednesday by Judge James Giddings, of 30th Circuit Court in Ingham County, ends months of court-ordered mediation between the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Vreba-Hoff Dairy LLC over the dairy company's farms in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.
The state in January filed a contempt-of-court charge, alleging Vreba-Hoff did not follow terms of a December, 2004, judgment for managing cow manure.
The order this week requires Vreba-Hoff to pay $180,000, which includes fines covered by the 2004 judgment; fines for new violations, and enforcement costs.
The two sides also signed a settlement agreement Wednesday in which Vreba-Hoff agrees to refrain from building additional structures or stalls for animals for 10 years - nearly eight years beyond the life of Judge Giddings' order. The settlement does not constitute an admission by Vreba-Hoff that the law was violated, the agreement states.
The order and settlement agreement allow Vreba-Hoff "to move forward with milking cows instead of litigating environmental issues against the state of Michigan," said Jack Van Kley of Columbus, the dairy firm's attorney.
He said the order, put together after more than three months of discussion, "crafts a careful compromise that I think will take care of the issues we had out there with the equipment that was malfunctioning and replace [the equipment] with new systems that are the same technology used by municipal wastewater treatment plants."
Still, the court order was something of a disappointment, state officials said.
"Unfortunately, until Michigan enacts stronger laws controlling the location and size of [concentrated animal feeding operations], our ability to properly regulate them and satisfy the public's high expectations for protection of the public health and our water resources is limited," Steven E. Chester, Michigan director of environmental quality, said in a statement.
The dairy farms combined have about 6,500 cows and will not be able to increase the herd until Vreba-Hoff demonstrates to the court that treatment standards have been met. Any additions will cost the firm $150 per cow.
In anticipation of the order, Vreba-Hoff reduced the herd size in recent months, Mr. Van Kley said.
Still, the state asked, unsuccessfully, for the judge to order an immediate further reduction in the herd, said Robert McCann, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality.
"This is ultimately going to rely on Vreba-Hoff running the system in the right way, which is a concern for us," Mr. McCann said.
In a statement, Vreba-Hoff said the farms will use the existing waste treatment system until the new system works fully. Vreba-Hoff added that "when it was installed last year, [the current system] was brand-new technology."
However, it added: "The complex system never operated according to its design capacity."
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