The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) is a panel of nine citizens who are supposed to provide public policy oversight of Iowa’s environmental protection efforts. At their September 18th meeting they had an opportunity to pass major improvements in the rules governing concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Instead, they punted by voting no for any new modifications in the current inadequate guidelines. They chose to kick the can down the road rather than grabbing the initiative to clean-up Iowa’s impaired waters, protect local communities and stand in support of local control.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) and Food & Water Watch petitioned the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the EPC to strengthen the CAFO requirements in siting, approval and local control. The CCI petition aimed at strengthening Iowa’s master matrix, the scoring system used by the DNR in approving construction permits for CAFOs. Seventeen counties have asked the state for more local control.
It suggested increased distance requirements between neighbors and hog confinements, cattle feedlots and other livestock facilities, greater credit for odor and pollution controls and a higher overall score for construction approval. “Applicants only need to satisfy enough of the listed criteria to obtain 50 percent of the available points — an ‘F’ by most standards,” CCI said.
The EPC heard from both those in favor of the petition to revise the current rules and those in favor of maintaining the status quo. The EPC denied the petition following two hours of testimony. The DNR argued any major changes must come from the Legislature.
“The master matrix is the result of legislation, so it’s going to require the Legislature to go back and look at that. We cannot exceed the authority of the statute by rule,” said DNR Director Chuck Gipp.
Testifying in support of the petition was Senator David Johnson, an Independent (former Republican) that was a part of a legislative team that designed the master matrix in 2002. Johnson said local governments need greater control over CAFOs.
“The Iowa Legislature is also failing in its role of oversight in all things agricultural,” he said. “The matrix has become a rubber stamp … From Woodbury to Washington, from Fremont to Allamakee counties, the master matrix is not offering meaningful protections for neighbors, for communities and for our limited natural resources,” Johnson said.
Mark Kuhn, another former state lawmaker and a Floyd County Supervisor who helped draft the master matrix in 2002 supported the petition. He said the law is outdated and is “an easy litmus test to pass” for those seeking to build CAFOs. “It’s been 15 years since we’ve addressed this issue…It’s time.”
“The matrix has really tied our hands,” said Michael Carberry, a Johnson County Supervisor. “I’m here to ask you to do your job so I can do mine.”
Represented Sharon Steckman from (D) Mason City entered testimony as well, saying, “It is time that the master matrix is reviewed and the welfare of the environment and the state taken into consideration.”
Those groups opposing any changes to the master matrix represent big ag interests, commodity groups and conservative farm lobby groups.
Several of the EPC members expressed support for revising the master matrix but didn’t seem to think they had the power to make the needed changes. Commissioner Joe Riding suggested the board send letters to legislative leaders and Gov. Kim Reynolds, asking them to reassess the matrix.
This issue isn’t going away. Iowa’s deteriorating water quality, counties growing demands for local control and the escalating numbers of new CAFOs will require urgent action by the legislature.
However, it will require leadership from Governor Reynolds in order to get the Republican controlled Legislature to act. It doesn’t appear that cleaning up Iowa waters is a priority for Governor Reynolds.
by Rick Smith