March 12, 2015

K’zoo County Manure Spill Bolsters Call for DEQ to Ban Winter Spreading

Environmental Disaster Highlights Need for Agricultural Reform in Michigan

Media Contact: Gail Philbin, gail.philbin@sierraclub.org, 312-493-2384

Lansing, Mich.-- A massive manure spill encroaching on water, wildlife and residents in Kalamazoo County underscores the urgency to revamp our agricultural system, just days after Less=More brought together 140 farmers, consumers and advocates to chart a path to a safer food future during Michigan State University’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Week.

VDS Farms, LLC, a dairy permitted by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) under the Clean Water Act,  spread manure on frozen and snow-covered fields near Fulton that began thawing in warmer temperatures this week. This led to a waste-infused snow melt spilling onto a county roadway and into roadside ditches, area wetlands, and private property earlier this week. 

Last year, Less=More joined dozens of other agriculture and environmental advocates in calling for the DEQ to ban the application of waste on frozen and snow-covered ground, which is currently allowed in the agency’s general water quality permit for CAFOs like VDS Farms. The DEQ is considering changes to that permit as part of a five-year renewal process, but it hasn’t made a decision yet and has favored voluntary compliance over banning the practice up to this point.

“Under DEQ’s current permits this isn’t an uncommon practice at this time of year as factory farms empty their lagoons that have been collecting millions of gallons of animal waste over the winter,” said Lynn Henning of Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a Less=More member. “It’s also not uncommon to have spills like this that threaten environmental and public health.  This kind of waste runoff is part of the reason we had poisoned drinking water from Lake Erie last summer.”

An algal bloom fueled by phosphorus runoff led to the growth of a toxin in August 2014 that made water from Lake Erie undrinkable for nearly a half-million people in and around Toledo for two days.

“Clearly, asking CAFO operators to voluntarily use their judgment as to when it’s not a good time to spread on frozen or snow-covered ground isn’t working,” said Sandy Nordmark, a farmer and member of Less=More.  “Banning winter waste application is a no-brainer. In fact, these are industrial facilities and they should be regulated as such.”

VDS Farms was one of the facilities cited in Restoring the Balance to Michigan’s Farming Landscape, Less=More’s 2013 report on the relationship between factory farm pollution and Farm Bill subsidies in Michigan (available at http://tinyurl.com/Less-MoreReport). VDS has a history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. The DEQ sued the operation in 2007 for violation of state laws and permits related to the protection of water quality. Other documented offenses included groundwater contamination in 2009 and fines and penalties of $40,000 in 2001.

“We need people concerned about sustainable agriculture and healthy food to speak up when state agencies are changing rules that govern how industrial scale farming is done,” said Gail Philbin, director of Sierra Club Michigan, a Less=More member. “There is a host of things that go on behind the scenes—like the subsidies for factory farms that Less=More is targeting-- that affect the kind of food we have access to as consumers.”

Less=More is a sustainable agriculture coalition comprised of national, state and local organizations, farmers and consumers. The March 9 Farming Our Future: The Forces and Faces of 21st Century Agriculture conference hosted by Less=More gave urban and rural sustainable agriculture practitioners, researchers, lawyers, and other experts the opportunity to explore the state of farming today and answer the question: How did we get to the point where the way we raise our food can actually endanger our health rather than promote it? Speakers discussed how to move beyond our industrial agriculture system, spotlighting emerging trends, innovative projects, and programs that support sustainable farmers. They also urged greater citizen engagement in the processes and programs that determine who gets to farm and how they farm.

For more information about Less=More, visit www.MoreforMichigan.org.  To sign up to get email updates about the coalition’s work, email gail.philbin@sierraclub.org.