Eye on Lansing: Snyder signs farm environmental program bills Bills represent significant step in governor's efforts to streamline state regulation

By David Runk

and Kathy Barks Hoffman

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this week signed his first two bills into law, measures to expand a voluntary program to help farmers be better environmental stewards and reward those that meet certain standards with less state oversight and protection from some legal liabilities.

The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program bills, which were approved by the Legislature earlier this month, represent a significant step in the Republican governor's efforts to streamline state regulation.

The program aims to help farmers evaluate their operations to better identify and prevent possible environmental problems. Farmers must attend education seminars, have their properties assessed for environmental risk and implement an action plan to become certified. Under the bills signed Tuesday, they are protected from some civil fines and penalties if they follow state-sanctioned environmental practices.

"This is a bill that is certainly important for our agricultural community," said Snyder, who called for such changes as part of his State of the State address in January. The left-handed governor signed the first bill into law at 2:43 p.m. and shortly afterward signed the other.

Critics worry some larger farms could get certified and then pollute.

Roughly 1,000 farms have been certified through the program, and thousands more are in earlier stages of the process.

Wayne H. Wood, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, thanked Snyder at the bill signing ceremony on behalf of Michigan agriculture. By 2015, the state could have 5,000 certified farms, representing about 80 percent of the Michigan land involved in production agriculture, the Farm Bureau said.

"While rules and regulations have a place and purpose, it only makes sense that Michigan break from its outdated oversight rut and create a regulatory climate that encourages farmers to proactively and voluntarily safeguard against potential environmental risks before they pose problems," Wood said in a statement.

Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter, said the environmental group plans to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the laws for possible Clean Water Act violations. She said the group thinks the new laws conflict with federal regulations and suggested that Snyder's administration may move to weaken state environmental standards.

"Michigan cannot go below federal requirements and keep its water quality program," Woiwode said.

Snyder said he didn't think the laws violate the Clean Water Act.

Although environmentalists have been concerned big farms will use the law to avoid responsibility for pollution, the legislation doesn't change regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations -- the largest livestock farms also known as factory farms or CAFOs. They still need state permits and are subject to penalties for violations.

In his State of the State address, Snyder said the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program should be a "seal of assurance" so farmers who run environmentally-sound operations are protected from what he termed unnecessary regulations and frivolous lawsuits.

Since taking office in January, Snyder has made other changes to how the state handles other regulation and licensing. And he's proposed turning the state's dairy farm inspection program over to industry field representatives certified by state agriculture officials.

Republican state Rep. Kevin Daley, a Lapeer County farmer who sponsored the legislation in the House, said the agricultural industry has been behind such an effort for more than a decade.

"It's going to make Michigan a leader in agricultural environmental stewardship," said Daley, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.

Published: Thu, Mar 10, 2011