Michigan Chapter

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Animal Factory Pollution: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

Large animal factory with at least seven sewage pits.

This is a typical Michigan animal factory, with several huge barns that house hundreds or thousands of animals each, and several acres of raw sewage storage pits. (Photo by Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. Flight support provided by Lighthawk.)

The US Environmental Protection Agency calls them Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs.   The idea is that animals are kept inside large barns, and food is brought to them, while feces, urine, and other wastes are taken away.  A large dairy CAFO rotates the cows through the milking parlor 3 times a day, almost like an assembly line.  It's these concepts, that agriculture has become increasingly industrialized, that brings to mind the phrase "animal factory".  More and more, Michigan's dairies have shifted away from smaller "family farms" that feed their cows on pasture, to these much larger industrialized operations.  Rarely are the cows allowed access outside for pasture and sunshine.

Stopping CAFO Pollution, a webpage to help you fight back

If you've come here looking for help, see the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter's webpage Stopping CAFO Pollution  that's designed to help you document and stop a polluting CAFO in your community, or to help you stop a new CAFO that's proposed for your community.  There are easy-to-follow "How Tos", FAQs, a glossary, plus resources for Michigan as well as other states.  There are also contacts to help you with questions and strategy.  Check it out now!

Why are CAFOs bad for Michigan? What can you do now?

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs): what are they?

CAFOs are massive animal factories that house thousands of livestock in close quarters, and that produce as much untreated sewage as cities.  Animal factories are  increasing in number throughout Michigan's countryside, they're often inappropriately placed, and often designed to pollute.  Sierra Club has led the fight to protect the health and economic well-being of Michigan's rural communities by working for more stringent regulation, to bring these operations under the same kinds of environmental and health regulations as all other industries.

For more information see Facts about CAFOs.

Watch the Sierra Club's acclaimed 24 minute documentary

Living a Nightmare: Animal Factories in Michigan (part 1), produced by Future Media Corporation of Okemos, Michigan.

Living a Nightmare: Animal Factories in Michigan (part 2), produced by Future Media Corporation of Okemos, Michigan.

Scientific Review and Studies of CAFOs and Impacts

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives presented a series of articles over several months in 2006 and 2007 about concentrated animal feeding operations and their impacts.  You can read the articles free online. 

Animal waste pollutes water

CAFOs house hundreds to thousands of animals in massive buildings almost year round. Their raw liquified sewage is 25- 100 times more concentrated than human sewage, plus has milk house waste, blood, dead animals, sanitizing and other chemicals mixed in, all of it stored in an open pit that holds millions of gallons.  When the disgusting mix is spread on farm fields for disposal as crop fertilizer, it often washes off the fields with rain, or right through the soil into field tiles that drain into streams and rivers, contaminating drinking water intakes, threatening recreational users and harming fish and other wildlife. (See Anatomy of an Animal Factory.) 

The Sierra Club has been testing surface waters polluted by CAFO runoff for many years.  Over and over again, we've found evidence of manure pollution, which we've provided to the MDNRE (was MDEQ) so they could properly investigate the pollution source, and enforce the law.  

Groundwater contamination is also a risk, from nitrates or pathogens like E. coli that move downward into aquifers with the filthy water.  The main problem here is that no one is monitoring the water to make sure it's not been contaminated by animal waste.

Animal waste pollutes air

Air pollution from the animal factories comes from the barns, the sewage pits and from spreading the wastes on fields.  Irrigators spray untreated wastes through overhead pipes, aerosolizing the liquid and bacteria.  Children and the elderly in particular suffer from  exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, ammonia, and particulate matter that can carry bacteria or other pathogens right into the lungs of neighbors.  See this study by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Air Quality Study".

CAFOs harm rural communities and economy

Animal factories hurt small farmers who can't compete with the huge corporate-owned operations, partly because the huge operations get the lion's share of tax supported federal agriculture subsidies.  Mega-dairies often earn a premium on their milk because a milk-hauler needs to make fewer stops to fill their tanks, leaving smaller producers out in the cold.  Add to this that animal factories often surround smaller farms, so the smaller farms are harmed by the same water, air, and land pollution as non-farming residents.  There's no escape. 

No one wants to buy a home near an animal factory, so CAFO-neighbors find themselves unable to sell, with property values dropping as much as 70% after animal factories move in.  In "Community Health and Socioeconomic Issues Surrounding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations", a "workgroup evaluated impacts of the proliferation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on sustaining the health of rural communities. Recommended policy changes include a more stringent process for issuing permits for CAFOs, considering bonding for manure storage basins, limiting animal density per watershed, enhancing local control, and mandating environmental impact statements."  (Environ Health Perspect. 2007 February; 115(2): 317–320., Published online 2006 November 14. doi: 10.1289/ehp.8836. PMCID: PMC1817697)

Sierra Club position: state laws, permits, local government control

Michigan needs strong pollution prevention laws that specifically pertain to CAFOs. Until such laws are passed, Michigan should not encourage or allow the establishment of new Animal Factories.

Permits must spell out operating standards and include a comprehensive waste handling plan for each facility. Air and water quality monitoring, and regular inspections should be conducted to ensure permit requirements are met. State and local governments must be able to establish more comprehensive guidelines for Animal Factory waste disposal to meet the needs of unique landscape, rainfall, climate and population factors specific to their communities.

Local governments should have the right to make land use decisions regarding location of CAFOs, particularly near surface waters, schools, homes or other areas where high potential for human health impacts exist.  Animal waste land-applicators should be getting permits and following guidelines very similar to biosolids applicators.

What You Can Do Now

You can contact your Legislator to ensure he/she is aware of the issue and the potential damage CAFO operations can do to the state's air and water.  Become a Sierra Club Legislative Watchdog or contact Anne Woiwode, Chapter Director, for current information on the legislative issues.

Is an Animal Factory planned for your community?

There are several avenues of assistance.  See the Sierra Club's webpage Stopping CAFO Pollution.  For information about pending CAFO water discharge permits see the MDNRE website.  You can help monitor streams around CAFOs and comment on proposed permits for new or existing CAFOs.  Contact Conservation Director Anne Woiwode to find out how.  Lynn and her husband Dean are family farmers working land that has been in the Henning family for four generations.

Eight years ago, when the first of the 12 concentrated animal feeding operations in the Hudson area of Michigan set up next door to her family’s farm, Lynn joined with other residents to form Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan to do water monitoring and to protect their homes, their health, and their way of life. Lynn became part of the Sierra Club Water Sentinels team as a volunteer, and in January 2005 came on staff as the Michigan Chapter’s CAFO Water Sentinel. Lynn was awarded The Goldman Environmental Prize for North America in 2010 for her work.

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News Releases
about CAFOs

Click here for Help for Stopping CAFO Pollution in your community, or if you're trying to stop a CAFO from locating nearby.

To learn more about our work to prevent pollution from animal factories, contact Conservation Dir:Anne Woiwode


May 2011  Michigan Sierra Club's letter to US EPA about impacts of Public Acts 1 & 2 (MAEAP)

July 2011  US EPA's letter to MDEQ with questions about Public Acts 1 & 2 (MAEAP)

Oct. 2006  US EPA's letter to MDEQ that compares the clean water protections under the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program versus the NPDES Permit Program for CAFOs, and finds the MAEAP inadequate.

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