Officials in Michigan’s thumb region are looking at ways to address the economic impact and safety threat of manure haulers on rural roads.
More than 70 officials, planners, and farmers from Tuscola, Huron, and Sanilac counties met last week in Sandusky to discuss the issue – specifically, how manure haulers can continue to be used in the region’s rich agricultural industry without destroying its roads or posing a threat to the safety of others.
The meeting was organized by George Lasecki, zoning ordinance officer, in Sanilac County’s Moore Township, in response to concerns with regard to manure tankers “tearing up the roads,” said Tuscola County Road Commission Chairman Jack Laurie. Lasecki could not be reached by press time.
“I was glad we started something – these three counties – to get the ball rolling,” Laurie said. “Everyone – including the dairymen and the haulers – know there’s a problem.”
Officials from neighboring Huron and Sanilac counties told The Advertiser that the meeting was necessary due to the number of manure haulers in the thumb region.
“The meeting was good in a proactive way just to get people talking,” said Neal Hentschl, secretary-manager, Huron County Road Commission. “I cautioned the group, too, that at some point, if you don’t start policing yourself and paying attention to the detail, somebody in Lansing is going to do it for you.”
Ronald Gerstenberger, member, Sanilac County Road Commission, echoed similar sentiments, pointing out the top two reasons Sanilac County is involved.
“The number one concern is safety,” Gerstenberger said. “Second would be the impact on our roads. “
Manure haulers – also known as “tankers” or “spreaders” – contain large amounts of liquid manure collected and stored at operations such as dairy farms and then transported for use at some farms as a source of fertilizer.
There are various types of manure haulers. Oftentimes, they are towed by tractors instead of trucks designed for road transport.
Manure haulers can carry as much as 9,500 gallons.
They’re made for work in the farm field, however – not necessarily driving 40 miles per hour down roads.
For example, the weight isn’t distributed by numerous axles as it would be in a regulated tanker.
A 2012 study conducted for the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin found that manure haulers with 7,300 gallons and three axles caused more damage than one carrying 9,500 gallons with four axles.
Other issues include massive amounts of weight being put on the shoulders of roads, and some roads just not built to withstand so much pressure.
“The roads just were not constructed to handle 90-ton,” Laurie said.
Laurie noted that road commissions don’t have any authority “unless they do really visible destruction.”
Also, Laurie said farmers are afforded protections through Michigan’s Right to Farm Act.
The act provides legal protections for operations that adhere to best-management practices designed to protect the environment. Standards are set by the state Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development. They are updated each year to reflect advances in science and technology.
Before the Right to Farm Act, for example, farming couldn’t be done in some places after dark due to complaints about lights and noise, Laurie said.
In short, the state act supersedes local zoning ordinances dealing with noise, odors or other issues that sometimes arise with regard to farming operations.
“It’s the consensus of the group that we don’t want to mess with the Right to Farm Act because we’ll lose,” Laurie said. “And we all agree were it not for Right to Farm, agriculture would be in a world of hurt.”
Hentschl told The Advertiser he agreed, though questioned the validity of manure haulers – typically a contracted service by farmers – qualifying for protection through the Right to Farm Act.
He noted that via the Right to Farm Act, tractors are considered “vehicles of husbandry” and owners don’t have to pay a road tax, put any kind of license plate on the vehicles.
“In the strictest sense, a contract hauler for a dairy, is not a farmer,” Hentschl said. “They’re a contractor. But yet they still use the Right to Farm Act to run a tractor down the highway without a plate or licensed operator behind it.”
Tuscola County Road Commission members expressed concerns about equipment damaging roads and the dangers with young drivers behind massive pieces of machinery – just like the 18-year-old driver who lost control of a tractor towing a tanker with 9,500 gallons of manure Wednesday in Elmwood Township (see story, page A1).
“Right to Farm dealt with the nuisance part of it,” Laurie said. “But it does not give anybody the right to destroy property, whether it’s personal property or public property.”
Laurie said possible solutions discussed were using underground tubing to move manure, establishing defined routes, or requiring manure to be transported via regulated trucks as opposed to manure haulers.
“Trucks can be regulated under the rules that we have today for things like weight and speed,” Laurie said.
Road commission member Gary Parsell said avoiding use of regulated trucks allows for underage, unlicensed drivers to oftentimes be driving huge pieces of machinery alongside anyone else using the roadway.
Additional training for unlicensed drivers was suggested as another possible way to address the problem.
“One way to deal with the speed, blowing stop signs, and all of this stuff, might be to incorporate some kind of rule…that these drivers have to be trained because you’ve got 14- 15-, 16-year old kids out there with these 90-ton loads behind them…do they know what to do?” Parsell said.
“They can put a 14-year-old kid behind a tractor that’s running 40 miles an hour down the road pulling 90 ton,” he said. “Where a truck you got rules you have to follow.”
In addition to the ongoing discussion amongst representatives of the three counties, Laurie recommended manure haulers in Tuscola County be asked to meet with members of the road commission to have a discussion about what can be done.
He also suggested Michigan State Police and Tuscola County Sheriff’s Department representatives be involved “because they got a role in this, too.”
Tuscola County Road Commission member Julie Matuzak said dairy farmers also should be included in the discussion.
They knew what fields they were going to, but didn’t know anything about what routes they were taking,” she said. “I think we include those people in this meeting, too, because they are still responsible.”
Matuzak stressed the importance of taking a proactive approach to addressing the problem before it’s too late.
“I’m scared that the only way you’ll get an issue fixed is if there is something really bad happening,” she said. “We’ve got to do something.”
Laurie said the meeting in Sandusky was a step in the right direction.
“What’s the fix? The consensus was the road commissions ought to look at it,” Laurie said.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org