HOPKINS, Mich. (April 22, 2014) — Should a farm that was the source a massive manure spill earlier this year keep its state certification promoting environmental protections?
That will depend on what the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Michigan Department of Agriculture uncover in their investigation into the spill in Allegan County.
It’s been about two months since the Schaendorf Dairy Farms contributed to a five-mile long liquid manure spill in Weick’s drain. That sent employees scrambling to clean up the waters near Hopkins.
The Department of Environmental Quality says they are still considering whether there will be fines. “Our enforcement unit is reviewing this case right now,” Brad Wurfel, the Communications Director at the DEQ said.
We were able to obtain from the DEQ the violation notice dated March 3 which outlines exactly what the farm did in violation of its permit.
Violation #1 says that “…waste was discharging from the farm`s Pit # 3 waste storage structure through a failed valve connected to the clean storm water system and flowing through the farm`s clean storm water system … This unlawful discharge is a violation.”
“As I understand it, the valve has been fixed,” said Wurfel. “It needed a back-flow on it, it needed to conform to standards that are available out there.”
Violation #2: “The inspection also indicated the farm is stockpiling production area waste in a farmed field adjacent to the production area … This is a violation of the farm’s permit, as the waste is not stored in a properly designed waste storage structure.”
Violation #3: “The farm’s Pit #3 has been modified from its original construction and no longer appears to meet the structural design requirements outlined in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Practice.”
Violation #4: “John Schaendorf Dairy failed to conduct adequate visual inspections of the manhole where the leak from the piping, associated with the failed valve, entered the clean storm water system.”
Violation #5: “Drawings for Pit #3 were not available for review at the farm. The farm is required to keep this and other pertinent information with their Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan.”
With the list of violations, we wondered if the farm could still be considered environmentally sound under a verification program called the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, or MAEAP. On its website, it is described as a “voluntary program that helps farms of all sizes and all commodities voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks.”
“MAEAP is a pro-active program, voluntary, that addresses environmental risks on farm operations all across Michigan,” said Jim Johnson, the Director of the Environmental Stewardship Position with the Michigan Department of Agriculture. “It really was a response to a request by the industry back in 1997 as they continued to see more and more regulation. They came to the department, actually both DEQ and MDNR, and asked for a program that would address, help them to better understand environmental regulations, both state and federal.”
The MAEAP program has a number of technicians that look into the farms that want to be verified. “There’s 78 conservation districts across Michigan,” said Johnson. “Those local conservation districts, they hire a MEAP technician. We train the MEAP technicians.
“The DEQ, MSU, their training comes from a variety of different places, so they’re able to identify and address those issues. That technician comes out and walks them through this very organized assessment process that looks at all the possible issues that you might find in a farm operation.”
The state verified the Schaendorf Dairy Farm in October of 2012. However, just over a year later, in February 2014, the spill occurred.
We asked Johnson whether the farm could remain MAEAP verified given the occurrence of the spill. “MAEAP was a voluntary program up until 2011, at which point Governor Snyder actually signed MAEAP, codified MAEAP into law,” said Johnson.
That means there are steps that the state must take, including an assessment of the situation to figure out what went wrong. “We won`t know that until we`re finished with that assessment,” said Johnson.
Of the 2,000 farms that have been verified through the MAEAP process, only six have had spills, Johnson said.
The DEQ said if the farm’s verification is pulled, it would be the first time that’s happened.
“Was this negligence? Is it bad engineering which may not be anything associated with the farm operation itself?” said Johnson. “Or was this simply an accident, and so you want to make sure you get that correct.”
When asked if it gives the public a false sense of security to see that a farm is verified, Johnson said, “I don`t think so at all. The thing about MAEAP is that it is best management practices. These are very, very high bars for the farmers to actually meet.”
“We’re talking about something that’s occurring in the environment. So, there’s a big difference between negligence and an accident and so you want to get that right before you make a decision and so you make a decision together as departments to make sure you make the right decision.”
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and the DEQ will be working together over the next few weeks to try to work to answer some of the questions in this case, Johnson said.
The DEQ could know more on whether or not there may be a fine given to the farm in the next couple of weeks, Wurfel said. If the DEQ makes a decision to issue a fine against the farm, the case will likely go to the prosecutor and then before a judge in Allegan County.