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Published: Friday, 11/14/2008

Mediator supports $223,500 dairy fine

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HUDSON, Mich. - A retired judge has recommended that Vreba-Hoff Dairy LLC be fined another $223,500 over pollution, storage, and record-keeping issues the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has raised with the company's two megafarms south of Hudson.

Retired Ingham County Circuit Judge Lawrence M. Glazer, acting as the mediator for what would become the fifth settlement between Vreba-Hoff and state officials since 2003, said in a recent court filing he will recommend that Ingham County Circuit Judge James R. Giddings impose the $223,500 fine in addition to the $180,000 that Vreba-Hoff still owes for past violations.

Judge Giddings presided over earlier proceedings before assigning the case to a mediator.

Both sides have the right to appeal. Vreba-Hoff said it was satisfied with the recommendation, while the Michigan DEQ said it is mulling it.

"I think what it shows is the court is agreeing with our concern that this facility isn't operating properly and is posing a threat to our environment," Bob McCann, Michigan DEQ spokesman, said. "They haven't been able to show it works up to this point."

A court brief filed by the Michigan Attorney General's Office in March said the state was seeking at least $286,000 for the latest infractions, plus an order forcing Vreba-Hoff to reduce its 6,050-animal herd by 350 cows.

The state later accepted Vreba-Hoff's voluntary reduction of 250 cows.

In the latest proceedings, Vreba-Hoff told the judge it cannot pay its fines on a 12-month installment plan without returning to a full-sized herd.

"You can't pay the bills if your barns are half full," company spokesman Cecilia Conway said.

"It's going to be a political issue, a [public relations] issue. But you have to be realistic," Ms. Conway said.

"Putting us into financial jeopardy is not going to be a benefit to southeast Michigan whatsoever."

Vreba-Hoff's attorney, Jack Van Kley of Columbus, said more cows are needed, in part, because of the collapse of global financial markets.

"With today's credit atmosphere, they depend on that cash flow for those operations," Mr. Van Kley said of Vreba-Hoff. "Unless they make more money by filling the barns, they're not going to have the cash flow."

Mr. McCann said that the Michigan DEQ has "been down this road several times with them."

"Putting the water resources at risk are not a benefit to southeast Michigan, either. They just haven't demonstrated a follow-through on their end up to this point," he said.

Vreba-Hoff earlier said it has spent nearly $3 million on new equipment to treat its cow manure.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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