Michigan Update: Wastewater Legal Battle with EGLE

Chloe Merindorf of the Michigan Meat Association details the ongoing issues in the state that could affect the viability of processors doing business in the state.
By: Chloe Merindorf, Executive Secretary, Michigan Meat Association

On October 28, 2022, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) published an updated Wastewater General permit for slaughterhouses to be in effect November 1, 2022, through November 27, 2027. The staff at EGLE drafted the published requirements over a three-year period, while under Governor Whitmer's Administration. The updated requirements were to enhance the 2015 version permit.

In response to the updated requirements, the Michigan Meat Association (MMA) filed a lawsuit against EGLE for overstepping their authority in developing new discharge criteria for the general groundwater discharge permit for meat processing and slaughter facilities.
The most concerning updates that we are taking legal action to be revised are the following:
  • Reducing the discharge concentration for Total Inorganic Nitrogen (TIN) from 35 mg/L to 10 mg/L. TIN is the sum of all nitrogen forms or Total Nitrogen = Ammonia Nitrogen (NH3) + Organic Nitrogen (Nitrogen in amino acids and proteins) + Nitrite (NO2) + Nitrate (NO3)
  • Establishing a phosphorus discharge limit to be determined based on the proximity of the receiving crop land to surface water bodies,
  • Establishing Bio-Chemical Oxygen Demand (BOD5) limits, and
  • Establishing NO2 limit (when using a rapid infiltration basis or aboveground slow-rate land application for final disposal).
In addition to the four most concerning updates listed above, there are other requirements that have been updated that will tremendously impact the cost of doing business for meat processors in the State of Michigan. Every new task set forth by EGLE's revisions results in additional expenses to the business – beyond the treatment system upgrades themselves. Furthermore, many of the services should be completed by outside consultants, as the requests are beyond the capabilities of current business administrative staff. From a business standpoint, these compliance costs cannot be expensed from current industry profit margins, even with a multi-year backlog.

To continue moving forward, the MMA submitted a compromise settlement proposal to EGLE on April 14, 2023. We are hoping to work alongside EGLE to decrease the financial requirements and avoid further court costs. Our goal is to achieve a compromise that is attainable, enforceable, and economically feasible, based on a data-driven approach to satisfy the goals of both parties.

The proposal submitted on April 14 makes considerable progress toward enhancing the current standards for wastewater management systems for meat processors. As of now, none of the current general permit holders can comply with the suggested updates. The average start-up expenses to meet the updates required per the proposed guidelines in our settlement submission will be $150,000 per processor.

The verdict of our lawsuit will have a tremendous impact on the meat industry in Michigan but will affect many other facets of the economy, supply chain availability, and even livestock youth programs. So far, we have one processor in Michigan that closed their business due to the impact of the updated requirements. If we are unable to find an economically feasible and attainable compromise with EGLE in our lawsuit, we anticipate many more businesses closing due to inability to financially meet the requirements set forth in the original updated requirements submitted by EGLE in November of 2022.

As we look ahead, per EGLE, the November 2022 slaughterhouse permit serves as a model to update other permits in the future, like those for fruit and vegetable processing. This means the ripple effects could be felt across Michigan agriculture, including places like wineries, breweries, distilleries and other small to medium food processors which could face similar regulations from EGLE in the future.

In addition to the updated requirement in Michigan, the EPA is also currently reviewing the federal standard of wastewater management systems for meat processors and slaughterhouses. We anticipate Michigan's lawsuit outcome will impact how other states proceed. The MMA encourages you to become more informed on this issue beforehand, so that your state and businesses can anticipate how to navigate how your business(s) are going to face this issue.