REGION – The controversy over a permit issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to allow the Grayling Fish Hatchery to increase its capacity by more than 600 percent without waste treatment has prompted a groundswell of opposition from people who use the river for recreation, and those who depend on it for their livelihood.
Despite a day-long blizzard March 24, a community forum at Tinker’ Junction (formerly the Ole Barn) drew more than 125 people to a discussion between Anglers of the Au Sable President Dan Baird and Dan Vogler, owner of Harrietta Hills Fish Farm, the business that contracted with the Crawford County Board of Commissioners to run the hatchery.
In May 2012, Harrietta Hills Trout Farm and the board signed an agreement to keep the hatchery open. The DEQ issued the permit under discussion to Harrietta Hills in 2014. The permit allows the hatchery to increase the number of fish produced from 20,000 to 300,000 pounds annually.
There were two formal public hearings by the DEQ in regard to the permit, but regardless of vocal opposition to the permit, the DEQ issued it anyway. It was at that point the Anglers’ and the Sierra Club got involved in the process and filed suit to prevent the expansion from taking effect.
Vogler said just six raceways are currently available for fish production, and plans to increase production to 100,000 to
Baird said if the permit is approved, the hatchery will be converted to an industrial fish farm.
“The idea is to grow livestock in the east branch of the river,” Baird said at the meeting.
In response to that statement, Vogler said, ‘I am a proud farmer,” he said. “This is a farm. We raise food to feed people.”
Although both Baird and Vogler were allowed to make statements at the beginning of the meeting, everyone in the audience was invited to submit a question in writing.
Among the variety of questions rose a singular theme: Why risk the health of an internationally renowned river for what will potentially cause a net loss in jobs and harm the economy; and why isn’t Harrietta willing to end the controversy by treating the waste prior to allowing it to flow into the river.
Vogler said two-full time jobs and two part-time seasonal jobs will be created at the hatchery. However, according to an economic study done by Dr. Frank Lupi, a natural resources economist from Michigan State University, the pollution the permit will cause could cost about a dozen jobs across the entire AuSable River Watershed, and up to $4.5 million in lost tourism revenue.
Testifying on behalf of the Anglers’ at one of two formal public hearings, was Josh Greenburg of Gates AuSable River Lodge. Greenburg said in an earlier interview that the health of the river is critical to the success of his business, as well as many others. He said the reputation of the ‘Trophy Waters,’ a stretch of the upper part reserved exclusively for fishing only, is what draws people to the region.
Greenburg said the lodge has hosted fisherman and their families from every state, as well as England, Japan, Norway, Germany and Spain.
‘The simple thing about resource-based tourism is it just keeps producing jobs and being healthy at the same time. That’ the beauty of it. The resource generates many millions of dollars every year and all we have to do is take care of it and protect it,’ he said.
‘A lot of money has been spent over the years bringing this river back from what it was. And now, the state wants to waste those efforts with this permit.’
Baird said the Anglers’ are not opposed to the expansion of the hatchery, but just want to see the waste treated properly.
However, Vogler said he is unwilling to invest any money into equipment to capture the waste prior to the settlement of the lawsuit. But nothing in the permit requires him to do any treatment other than those specifically detailed in the permit.
When one audience member asked who is responsible if the river is harmed by the operation. Vogler said he will be personally responsible if he ‘breaks’ the river, and is subject to substantial fines. He also noted that his business is formed as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), which in part protects personal assets in the event of an accident.
Vogler said the hatchery has been trying to be a good neighbor and asked the audience to trust that he won’t harm the Au Sable. He noted that trout from the fish farm have been used by the Grayling Youth Booster Club’s Fourth of July kid’s fish contest for the last three years.
“We’re very proud of that,” Vogler said. “It’s a great program GÇª It’s great opportunity for the kids to learn to fish.”
Since the topic combined water and the DEQ, the conversation appeared destined to turn toward the Flint water crises, where the DEQ withheld information from the public about lead contamination of the city water system.
An unidentified man in the back of the room yelled, ‘I’m from Flint. I don’t believe anything the DEQ has to say.’
Vogler countered that if every DEQ permit in the state was rescinded, business in Michigan would grind to a halt. The audience burst into applause at the comment.
“I can’t defend their actions in Flint, but Flint and Grayling are not the same place GÇª It’ not same permit,” he said.
Baird also said the permit needs to be adjusted to address the issue of fairness, noting that private homeowners with septic systems and municipal wastewater treatment facility need to treat their waste.
“We just don’t think this permit protects the river,” Baird said. That’s why we’re appealing.”
An open house at the hatchery is scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. on April 24.