Clean water activists cheered on January 16 when the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the state's program for permitting large factory farms violates the federal Clean Water Act. The court agreed with the Sierra Club that factory farms in Michigan failed to provide adequate information on "nutrient" (i.e., manure) pollution and make that information available for public review.
"This is a huge victory for clean water and the public, and a vindication of what the Sierra Club has been arguing for many years," says Michigan Chapter Director Anne Woiwode, pictured above with Sierra Club attorney Aaron Isherwood. "Factory farms will now be on the same footing as other companies that need to get water quality permits."
Scott Jerger, below, who took on the case pro bono, was the Club's lead attorney on the appeal. The court ruled that the state is wrongly giving factory farms, also called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), too much authority to determine how much manure they spread on fields and the rate at which they can do so. CAFOs generate huge amounts of manure that is spread on farm fields, the runoff from which pollutes nearby streams with harmful bacteria. Permit seekers will now need to provide detailed information on what they plan to do and make that information available for public review.
The Sierra Club has been running an aggressive grassroots campaign to clean up Michigan factory farms since 1999, including tabling events, mailings, press conferences, factory farm tours, water testing through the Club's Water Sentinels Program, and picketing individual CAFOs. "We set up a booth at the state Department of Environmental Quality's Earth Day event," says Woiwode, "and we even had an activist dressed up as a pig in front of the office of a candidate for governor who was closely associated with the CAFO industry." Woiwode cites fellow chapter organizer Lynn Henning, below, as a key leader in coordinating the Club's efforts.
Club attorney Isherwood has worked with the chapter for years to develop a legal strategy to complement the chapter's grassroots efforts. "The former governor basically said he didn't give a damn what the Clean Water Act says, no CAFO in his state would have to get a Clean Water Act permit," Isherwood says. "So our main goal was to force the state to start regulating factory farms under the Clean Water Act."
The chapter petitioned the EPA to take away the state's authority to issue Clean Water Act permits. "The EPA took this very seriously," says Isherwood. "They told the state, 'The Sierra Club has a point. What are you going to do about it?' Ultimately the state caved, and the current governor, Jennifer Granholm, has been much better on the issue."
But the problem remained that there was no ability for citizens to review CAFO plans for managing waste. "With today's ruling," Isherwood says, "the public will now have access to that information without having to file a Freedom of Information Act request."
Learn more about the Sierra Club's work to protect clean water and clean up factory farms.
Photos used with permission.