In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder signed two bills into law to help reduce agricultural pollution. The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) describes itself as a "voluntary program to reduce farmers’ legal and environmental risks."
MAEAP claims many educational, environmental and promotional benefits for farms. But what are the legal costs and benefits for farmers?
Because of MAEAP, there are now state-backed standards for farms when it comes to dealing with pollution. For a lawyer, this immediately triggers one thought: this is another way to prove negligence against a farm. Even though those two 2011 laws didn't require compliance with MAEAP standards, they can be used as evidence against farmers who don't follow those standards, especially as more farms sign up for MAEAP.
There are two things about MAEAP that matter. First, if a farm is MAEAP-verified and accidentally discharges pollution, and the farmer does their best to notify the state and clean up the spill, that farm may not be liable for civil fines or penalties. Second, if a verified farm is following MAEAP practices, and a rainstorm leads to pollution, that will be considered an "Act of God" and the farm won't be directly blamed.
As you can see, following MAEAP could be good for farmers and the environment. The big unknown is whether the law will be used against farms that have not joined the program. I could only find one case in Michigan that even mentioned MAEAP, indicating that so far, it hasn't been a major concern. In the future, however, it may be that some enterprising lawyer will find a way to use the new laws to the detriment of a farmer.
The Michigan Right to Farm Act also provides some legal protection for farmers when it comes to pollution, and MAEAP can help farmers show that they meet the requirements of that law. I will address the Right to Farm Act in a future blog post.