Legal wrangling with fish hatchery operator continues in circuit court
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Despite a pending ruling on a proposed permit to increase fish production at the Grayling Fish Hatchery from the head of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), a local angling group has raised other issues in a lawsuit filed in the Crawford County Circuit Court.
The Anglers of the AuSable, a local angling and conservation group that was established 30 years ago, filed a lawsuit against the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC on Friday, March 24.
In May 2012, the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm and the Crawford County Board of Commissioners entered into a contract for the operation of the Grayling Fish Hatchery, to keep the 103-year-old community attraction open to local residents and tourists. Before entering into the contract, the Grayling Recreation Authority informed county officials that it no longer wanted to oversee fish hatchery operations because it was a financial loss.
A National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit was issued by the DEQ on July 1, 2014, since Harrietta Hills plans to increase trout production from 20,000 per year up to 100,000 per year.
Harrietta Hills hopes to gradually increase production to levels where 300,000 pounds of trout are produced per year, but all of the trout will not be in the hatchery’s raceways at one time since they will be removed and harvested once they reach 1.25 pounds.
The Sierra Club and the Anglers of the AuSable challenged the permit in a contested court hearing held last year.
In his recommendations released on Feb. 1 of this year, Administrative Law Judge Daniel L. Pulter stood by the DEQ Water Resources Division staff’s provisions included in the permit. Pulter also added more stringent water quality reporting to the permit.
The initial permit called for quiescent zones, screened off areas below the rearing areas at the end of the raceways to increase the settling rate of nutrients prior to discharge, to be installed when fish production at the hatchery reaches 100,000 pounds. The zones can be cleared regularly to prevent uneaten fish food and fish feces from going into the river. In his recommendation, Pulter called for installment of the quiescent zones six months after a final determination order has been made regarding the permit.
DEQ Director Heidi Grether will make a final decision on the permit, but a timeline for her ruling is unknown.
Tom Baird, president of the Anglers of the AuSable, said issues raised in the lawsuit filed last week are outside of jurisdiction of the DEQ.
Specifically, the Anglers argue that the operation of an “industrial sized fish farm” is a violation of the statute and deed that transferred ownership of the Grayling Fish Hatchery to Crawford County. The Grayling Fish Hatchery was built in 1914, with hopes of reintroducing arctic grayling into local streams. When that effort failed, various species of trout were reared at the hatchery. The Department of Natural Resources operated the hatchery from 1925 to 1964.
The deed transfering the fish hatchery to the county, completed in 1985, says the property must be used for recreational or museum purposes.
Harrietta Hills Trout Farm opens the fish hatchery to the public between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The Anglers argue that limiting access to the property during other months, as well as limiting access to fishing areas surrounding the hatchery, where fences have been placed, violates the deed restrictions intended for public use.
“This is the biggest threat the river has faced since logging operations devastated it more than a century ago,” Baird said. “We are going to Crawford County Circuit Court now to raise additional objections in our fight for the AuSable.”
Further, the Anglers argue the Michigan Environmental Protection Act authorizes any person to file action in circuit court for the protection of the air, water or other natural resources to protect them from pollution, impairment or destruction.
The Anglers contend that phosphorous and nutrients released into the river will have a negative impact on natural insect hatches that occur on the river, depriving the wild trout population from the food that they thrive on. That, in turn, would have a negative economic impact on local businesses since anglers would not travel from throughout the world to fish on the renowned trout stream.
“The administrative law judge who allowed the permit to go forward admitted this hatchery will pollute the AuSable,” Baird said. “That’s simply unacceptable for everyone who uses this pristine natural resource – anglers, canoers and kayakers, the thousands of property owners who purchased their homes and land with an expectation that the state would protect the river, and hundreds of jobs that rely on the river being clean and natural. It’s a shame that we now have to continue the battle in court, but we are ready to fight anywhere, anytime, for the AuSable and all who use it and benefit from it.”
Dan Vogler, the co-owner and general manager of the Harrietta Hills Fish Farm, said on Monday, March 27, that he hasn’t been served with a copy of the lawsuit. Therefore, he had little to comment on or information for his attorney to review.
“Obviously, its them rewarming the leftovers and trying to serve them up in a different court,” Vogler said. “Same stuff. Different day.”
Vogler noted that 28 witnesses testified during the administrative court hearing last year, and 4,000 pages of court transcripts were produced from the proceedings.
“At the end of the day, the court said we were protective of the environment and we’re not going to hurt the river,” Vogler said.
Vogler said the continued litigation amounts to extortion in an attempt to force him to walk away from the fish hatchery.
“It’s more bullying tactics,” he said. “That’s all it is.”