Large manure spill near Coldwater River marks second incident in past year

Thu, Jan 17, 2019 | Christian Yonkers: Contributing Writer

Source: The Hastings Banner

“A recent spill resulted in approximately 500,000 gallons of liquid manure released into surrounding fields and wetlands. An estimated 50,000-100,000 gallons leached into Tyler Creek, a tributary of the Coldwater River. This is the second significant agricultural waste leak in the area the the past year, the two locations represented by the map shown.

A recent manure spill marked the second significant agricultural waste spill in the Coldwater River Watershed in the past year. Saturday, Jan. 5, Swisslane Dairy in Alto self-reported a discharge from a defective valve near the border of Kent and Ionia counties. By the time the defective valve was shut off, an estimated 500,000 gallons of manure had leaked from the valve into the adjacent fields and a nearby wetland, 50,000-100,000 gallons of which made it to Tyler Creek.

Swisslane pumped 300,000-350,000 gallons from a contaminated wetland. The farm estimated reclaiming an additional 50,000 gallons from the above-ground flow path. The remaining 50,000-100,000 gallons were swept away into Tyler Creek, a tributary of the Coldwater River.

Despite the large volume of waste swept away into Tyler Creek, the incident is likely to have little impact on human and ecological health, said DEQ Senior Environmental Quality Analyst Melissa Sandborn.

“The release would have caused elevated levels of nutrients and E. coli in the receiving waters,” Sandborn said. “Due to recent weather conditions, there has been a high volume of water passing through Tyler Creek, particularly on the day of the discharge. As a result, the manure (and subsequently, nutrient and E. coli levels) was quickly diluted.”

Due to cold weather and high water levels, there is little chance that people could have come in contact with waste, Sandborn said. She confirmed the discharge has been stopped, and there is no evidence of an impending fish kill. 

“This time of year, with the water being cold and most of the aquatic organisms … pretty inactive, there is probably no acute danger,” Aaron Snell, an independent environmental engineer with Streamside Ecological Services, said. “However, the nutrients, etc. associated with the manure … will persist in the system and can, many months later, fuel growth of plants and algae.”

If the spill occurred in the summer, a fish kill would have been likely, Snell said. A spill in 2006 killed nearly all fish in a 4 1/2-mile section of river.

The Swisslane spill marked the second major agricultural spill in the area in the past year. Up to 10,000 gallons of manure leached into the Coldwater in March 2018, just a few miles southeast of the Jan. 5 spill. 
At this point, the DEQ has been focused on containment and clean-up. Sandborn said the case will be reviewed to determine what enforcement actions, such as fines, are appropriate.

In the meantime, Swisslane Dairy is responsible for clean-up efforts. As a part of the review of the case and potential enforcement actions, the DEQ will expect the farm to demonstrate and implement actions to prevent a future discharge.

“As of Tuesday morning, our mitigation was 100 percent completed,” Swisslane spokesperson Anna Link said. “The manure was contained and cleaned up as we followed the MDEQ standards and best practices.”
Swisslane created temporary dams to abate the flow to wetlands, and used pump trucks to clean up the spill. The dairy hired a contractor to expedite the pumping process. Swisslane submitted incident reports to the DEQ and Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program Friday. Swisslane representatives confirmed it is actively implementing preventative measures.

Sandborn was unable to determine if the spill is part of a larger trend. Both spills of the past year were the result of equipment failure, and were promptly reported by the farms once discovered.

“Equipment malfunctions are generally difficult to classify as part of a trend,” she said. “However, farmers should be cognizant of their equipment at all times. Land application equipment should be inspected daily during use, and regular maintenance programs should be in place to help prevent equipment failures. Following safe agricultural practices can help prevent discharges and protect waters of the state.”

“Farms are just like any other business; regardless of the size, our focus is sustainability,” Link said. “We strive for continuous improvement, looking every day for innovative ways to make things better for our environment. Farmers live on or near the land that they farm. We understand the importance of protecting our natural resources.”

Link, on behalf of Swisslane, provided a statement concerning the dairy's community and environmental vision.

“Our goal is making sure that 100 years from now our family will have the same or greater opportunities than we have today,” said Link. “We believe it is our responsibility and calling to be stewards of the land. That's just common sense when you make a living off the land ... Our commitment to the land is not just about growing crops but growing relationships … and growing our families and our business, which will result in growing our community.”

Swisslane is a concentrated animal feeding operation. CAFOs, by definition, rear large numbers of animals which create an enormous amount of waste. The average dairy cow produces 20 pounds of waste per day, Snell said, meaning a 3,000-cow operation would produce 60,000 pounds of waste each day, the equivalent of a small city.

Farms like Swisslane have many mitigation and best management practices at their disposal, Snell said, many of which Swisslane has implemented. DEQ grants have helped pay for tree planting and creation of buffers within the watershed, at no cost to landowners.

Still, stakeholders are uneasy. The Coldwater River Watershed Council has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours restoring and protecting the watershed. For anglers and conservationists who frequent the river, the Swisslane spill isn't water under the bridge.

“We're fighting an uphill battle, because every time we make an improvement, it seems like something happens that tarnishes that improvement,” Coldwater River Watershed Council spokesperson Ron Barch said.

Recent examples he cited were various spills and damage done to the river and its tributaries by a contractor three years ago.

Large spills are an ongoing problem for the watershed council, Barch said. The Coldwater River Watershed Council was formed in part to protect against pollution from large CAFOs in and around the watershed.
The council will be removing log jams and debris when weather permits. Barch said this eliminates backups, which helps the river clear up faster in case of a spill. Still, these measures alone aren't enough to abate a large-scale spill during the warmer months.

“I think there's lots more that can be done,” Barch said. “This is an ongoing problem, and the DEQ doesn't seem to take it that seriously. Nothing seems to happen; there isn't much accountability.”
E. coli poses a serious health risk in the event of a manure spill, Barch said. The pathogen is derived from both animal and human waste and has been identified in area water ways such as Thornapple Lake, Jordan Lake, the Coldwater River and Gun Lake.

“Agriculture is increasing within Barry, Ionia and Kent counties, and this is the kind of dilemma that happens with large-scale agricultural operations,” Barch said.

Manure storage and application methods must be seriously rethought in order to safeguard the region's water, he said.

The Coldwater River and its tributaries exhibit E. coli levels above accepted standards, Snell said. Agricultural applications are the main culprit for elevated levels of E. coli, as well as nutrients that cause algae blooms and fish kills. 

“… [J]ust downstream from Swisslane, kids swim, tube and play in the stream all summer,” Snell said. “People fish the creek and the Coldwater … These activities, at times, would be considered to be restricted or dangerous based upon Michigan law.”

Data in nearby watersheds indicate E. coli originates primarily from agricultural manure, Snell said. Human septic systems also contribute to the problem. Snell has identified several homes within the watershed discharging untreated sewage into surface waters.

Snell suggested increasing safeguards to defend mechanical equipment malfunctions, the culprit in recent spills.

“It seems to be in everyone's best interest, the farmers included, to have some additional margin of safety, or redundancy, built into the infrastructure, especially when it is so close to the stream,” he said.

In the end, Snell urged stakeholders to consider the long-term sustainability of their actions to protect the watershed, which provides priceless environmental and agricultural utility to the region.

“We all live downstream of something,” he said.”