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Legalizing stench

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Living downwind from 2,500 manure-producing animals may not only assault one's senses, but one's health. That is why some municipalities throughout the state have passed laws regulating the way large livestock farmers in Michigan contain and manage animal waste.

But Gov. John Engler put a halt to any attempts at local control last week when he signed a law that gives the state alone this regulatory power. Critics fear the move will open the door to even more large-scale factory farms, which they say present a growing problem.

"The state's solution was to take away the local voice," says Patty Cantrell, economic analyst with the Michigan Land Use Institute.

According to Cantrell, local authorities in recent years passed ordinances governing how much manure large livestock farmers can apply to the soil because state law does not adequately protect the public.

Too much manure spread across fields, she says, can seep into groundwater and contaminate it. Unrelenting stench is another reason local governments sought a way to give neighbors a way to fight back against the type of large-scale agribusiness that they perceived as damaging the quality of life in rural areas.

Ron Nelson, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, which supported the law, says the governor's action was needed to override local ordinances that were too stringent.

"They are not realistic," says Nelson, who cites a case where a farmer was sued for nearly $60,000 because his hog farm stunk. He says that the farmer was in compliance with the Michigan Right to Farm Act, but still was fined because he did not comply with local laws.

One problem with the new law, says Jack La Rose, executive director of the Michigan Township Association, is that fines can't be levied against farmers until contamination is actually proved.

"You want to prevent these things from happening, especially when it deals with the environment, water and air," says La Rose. The problem with the new law, he says, is that it only addresses contamination after it occurs.

Engler spokesperson Susan Shafer says her boss signed the bill because of the pressure it put on farmers.

"Farming is becoming more difficult and the law allows protection to some farmers," says Shafer. "It allows them to farm their fields and operate in a way they can."

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