How to Stop Approval of a New CAFO

A tractor hauls a tank spewing black liquid manure over a field.How do you stop a new CAFO from coming into your community? You harness the power of those who will be affected by the CAFO. Here's how to bring your community together to stop a proposed CAFO.

(Note: If a CAFO is already in your community, visit Facing Problems with an Existing CAFO :: Organize Community Members)

The image shows liquid manure spewing from a tanker over a hill slope.

A. Identify Who Will Be Affected by CAFO Pollution
B. Bring Potential CAFO Neighbors Together
C. Contact Agency and Government Officials

A.  Who Will be Affected by CAFO Pollution?

If a CAFO is going to come into your community or the community of someone you know, know that people who live near CAFOs are often unable to go outdoors, have picnics, hang laundry, or mow the grass. The freedoms they associate with living near the countryside vanish as they become prisoners in their own homes and their property values plummet.

So, if a CAFO plans to come to your area, speak with your neighbors and friends and bring people together who will be affected by the CAFO both directly and indirectly.

  • Those who live nearest the proposed facility, as well as landowners next to the fields where the CAFO waste would be applied.
  • Both the very young and the elderly will be affected by CAFO pollution.
  • People with sensitive immune systems will be directly affected by the CAFO's gases, emissions,and pollution discharges to water, land and air.
  • Local family farmers will be run out of business. CAFO operators will offer them more money than they may be used to in order to rent their land, but many CAFOs do not practice good stewardship . CAFO operators are notorious for overapplication of waste, causing poor crops in fields, and for irrigating in such large amounts that the fields have to be reseeded again and again. (It becomes apparent soon the field is only for waste disposal and not for growing and harvesting crops.)

B. Bring Your Neighbors and Your Community Together

Many times people will not realize the serious impacts on their health or the damage to the local environment that one or more CAFOs will bring. Once educated, most of your neighbors will want to know what they can do to help stop the CAFO from being built. They'll need your help to guide them about what they can do that actually will make a difference. It's important to begin organizing as soon as you learn about a new CAFO or expansion proposal. 

Here's how to start stopping that CAFO:

  • Plan to meet with the concerned neighbors on a regular basis, maybe in someone's home or at the local library or community center.
  • Delegate tasks, encourage all to help.
  • Ask if the group wants to form a nonprofit to help rally support from others in the community.
  • Give each other support and share information regularly. Set up regular meeting times, as well as an email list, as a good way to keep people involved.
  • Request copies of all documents from the MDEQ Permit Section, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • Get drinking water wells tested ahead of time within a mile of the proposed facility, contact your local health department for help. This will document your drinking water quality before any changes occur. 
  • Compile and share the information you've gathered on the proposed CAFO to help educate local officials and your state representatives.
  • Prepare and submit comments for the CAFO's NPDES water discharge permit application, and request that the MDEQ hold a public hearing!  Public hearings are not automatic, someone must request a hearing in writing before the comment deadline, and ideally immediately after the MDEQ releases the public notice about the public comment period. To find all NPDES and Groundwater Permits on Public Notice, go to the MDEQ Waters Resources Information page and use the PUBLIC NOTICE SEARCH section.
  • Reach out to the media to help raise awareness of the problem.
  • Ask for help from others who are experienced at fighting CAFOs.
  • Most importantly, get organized and become educated so you can educate others.

C. Contact Agency and Government Officials

Create a plan and make assignments for contacting officials.

Get in touch with legislators, county or city commissioners, the health department, your drain commissioner, state agency officials, and so on. When you contact these people, put them all on an email list so they're all copied when you contact one of them, so they all receive the same information. Make them see your issues and and hear your concerns. In this way you hold all of them accountable.

Identify public hearing opportunities to pursue.

In Michigan, townships and potential CAFO-neighbors may find out about a proposed CAFO officially in a number of ways.

Scenario 1

In this scenario, the township where a CAFO would be built is notified by letter from the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) once a CAFO has asked them for siting-verification. The letter offers the township an opportunity to request a public hearing on the matter, which the township may waive if they choose.

If you know or suspect a CAFO is proposed, tell your township officials you want them to request a public hearing. A CAFO requests "siting verification" when they want approval from the MDA to site, or locate, their CAFO in a particular place. This is because under Michigan's Right to Farm law, CAFOs who follow Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices (GAAMPs) receive immunity from nuisance lawsuits by neighbors. Procuring "siting verification" by the MDA is one of the GAAMPs that will help protect the CAFO from nuisance lawsuits.

In a siting hearing, an MDA representative will present information, and the audience can ask questions. The MDA is not a regulatory agency, but it does manage several voluntary compliance programs, such as the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). See the MAEAP website for more information.

Scenario 2

In this scenario, if the CAFO plans to house a certain number of animals or more, they must apply to the MDEQ for either an individual or a general permit for water discharge  through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).  The proposed CAFO  must comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, the NPDES permit is the compliance vehicle, with regulations and rules that must be followed.

An individual NPDES permit is required for operations that would house at least 700 dairy cows or more (the numbers are different with other species, see CAFO in the glossary.) At this time, the NPDES permitting process offers the best opportunity that is available for public participation in CAFO-related decisions. Once the NPDES permit documents are completed and have been reviewed by MDEQ, the MDEQ will officially "public notice" the documents, making them available for inspection by the public by placing them on the MDEQ's Waters Resources Information page. 

Make a plan to meet the MDEQ's deadline for public comments submission.

Information about the public comment period deadline, and all supporting documents will be on the MDEQ's Waters Resources Information page. Anyone can submit comments about the application, or about the MDEQ's proposed decision, and anyone may request a public hearing be held. Note there is no requirement to hold a public hearing, so it must be requested by someone in writing, before the end of the public comment period.

Comments spoken out loud at a hearing have no more weight than comments that are submitted on paper or by email. The benefit of speaking your comments out loud at a public hearing is that everyone in the room can hear you, including your neighbors, some of whom may be reluctant to speak. They may be bolstered by hearing you and may also speak up. This is generally when local knowledge that may be important may come to light, for example if someone knows about an old buried stream or ditch, or some other information. If you speak at the hearing, you can hand in your comments at the same time, or you can send them in later, before the deadline.

Stick to the issue at hand - talk only about the water discharge permit

When public hearings are held on the water discharge permits, many people assume they just need to talk about how terrible it will be to have a CAFO nearby. They think this will surely cause the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to deny the permit. Then, when the MDEQ approves the water discharge permit and the CAFO gets the go-ahead, the neighbors can't believe it. They're horrified.

But the hard reality is that when a CAFO, or any business or corporation, applies for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) water discharge permit, the MDEQ is only allowed to use the laws that specifically apply to that permit. If there's no legal reason for the MDEQ to deny a permit, then they will approve it. Even though 537 people may speak in opposition to the CAFO, if they're not offering reasons relevant to the NPDES water discharge permit, then their comments won't be taken into account.

What this means is that you and your neighbors need to comb through the permit application line by line and find the things you can dispute, things that can be proven to the MDEQ. This takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of organization ahead of time. But it can be done. ((See the Bustorf Dairy Case Study.))

At this point, CAFOs are not required to have Air Quality permits, and none have been required to apply for a Groundwater Discharge permit.

MDEQ Appeal Process

If you or anyone else decides to pursue any legal options to dispute a permit, you must have submitted comments before the deadline for that permit, or you will not have legal standing. In other words, if you didn't speak up when you had the chance, then you can't do it now.

Given that you did that, your next step is to file for an administrative appeal, called a contested case with the MDEQ. See the Environmental Permits, Licenses, and Certifications website for direction. Click on DEQ Permit and Licensing Guidebook (the .pdf file is 10MB, and may download slowly.) Go to section 5.2.1, "National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit, Including Storm Water Runoff Discharge Authorization" on page 89.