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Published: Thursday, 1/17/2008

Michigan Court of Appeals rules Farm program violates water act


LANSING - The state Court of Appeals has ruled that Michigan's program for regulating large livestock and poultry farms violates the federal Clean Water Act.

The concentrated animal feeding operations generate manure that is spread on farm fields. Runoff can pollute nearby streams with potentially harmful bacteria found in animal waste.

In a 2-1 ruling released yesterday, the court said Michigan is wrongly giving farms too much authority to determine and adopt their own rates for spreading manure. The Sierra Club had filed a lawsuit criticizing the system.

"This is a real vindication of what we have been arguing for many years," Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's state chapter, said. "Concentrated animal feeding operations are going to be put on the same footing with all of the other companies that need to get water quality permits."

The court said concentrated animal feeding operations' nutrient management plans should be included in permits. Those plans include details such as the amount of manure farmers can spread in an area.

Robert McCann, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency was reviewing the ruling and it was too soon to say whether an appeal could be in the works.

Judges William Whitbeck and Michael Talbot based much of their decision on a February, 2005, federal appeals court decision. The federal ruling partially threw out federal rules governing large concentrated animal feeding operations because they didn't ensure that they would comply with environmental standards.

The Michigan appeals court also ruled that the state's permitting program doesn't give the public a chance to adequately review plans proposed by operators of the large farms. The state had asserted that citizens could file a Freedom of Information Act request.

"This is a rather circuitous path to encouraging and assisting public participation," Judge Whitbeck wrote.

Michigan has about 200 concentrated animal feeding operations, which typically have 1,000 or more "animal units" - 2,500 pigs, for instance, or 100,000 egg-laying hens.

Judge Brian Zahra dissented from the ruling. He said the Sierra Club failed to point to a specific state law or regulation that has been violated.

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