CAFO/Water Quality Forum draws large crowd

by Lissa Blake

Panelists who participated in a recent Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) and water quality forum aren’t anti-agriculture, they’re pro-clean air and water.

That was the consensus during the Thursday, November 9 forum, which was co-sponsored by the Luther College Center for Sustainable Communities and the Allamakee County Protectors Education Campaign. About l30 people attended the meeting held on the Luther College campus in Decorah.

Panelists included David Johnson, Independent State Senator and co-author of the original Iowa CAFO Master Matrix; Monte Marti, an Allamakee County native and property owner and an Iowa Environmental Council Board member; Larry Stone, a retired Des Moines Register outdoor writer who lives in Clayton County; Jess Mazour, organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI); Gene Tinker, former Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff; Karl Knudson, an attorney from Decorah and Steve Falck of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Moderators were Kevin Techau, former U.S. Attorney for Northern Iowa, and Ric Zarwell of the Allamakee County Protectors Education Campaign.

Each panelist took a few minutes to talk about their specific area of interest. Johnson shared some of the history of how the Master Matrix came into being. He said it started in the mid-1990s with a small group of legislators talking about changes in the pork industry.

Despite significant pushback from groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau, the state’s first Master Matrix was developed to regulate animal confinements in 2002. “The current laws haven’t been updated since then and there have been major changes in livestock production,” Johnson said.

Marti, who began his comments by saying he is both a Republican and a member of Farm Bureau, said his interest in the CAFO issue was elevating when land that was historically part of his family’s farm was slated for a 13,000-hog facility.

“The Iowa Environmental Council went to Chuck Gipp (head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources [DNR]) on our behalf. Chuck Gipp said it was the worst place for a hog confinement… He also said, ‘If we can build one there, we can build one anywhere,’” said Marti.

Marti said he is not anti-agriculture, but that the hog industry currently is expanding at the expense of other things, such as resources, water and lifestyle. “Maybe we should put dollar signs on it. Trout fishing brings in about $1.6 billion (throughout the Driftless Area),” Marti said.

Stone next expressed concerns about a new Walz Energy digester project going up outside of Monona that plans to house 10,000 cattle. “They plan to run manure through a digester, run methane through a scrubber and sell it as natural gas,” he said.

“Does that qualify as an animal operation or industry producing natural gas?” Stone asked. He said once the manure goes through the digester, the excess waste will be pumped into a 39 million gallon lagoon.

“Is that wastewater? Is that animal manure?” he asked. “It's a great idea if we can do it. But is anything failsafe? We’ve had 15 inches of rain in Clayton County… This is less than three miles upstream from Spook Cave, which is pretty important for the tourism economy of Clayton County.”

Mazour of ICCI noted Iowa currently has 750 impaired water bodies.

“We have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and our drinking water utilities are struggling to keep our water safe. Drainage districts need to be held accountable… Des Moines has the world’s largest de-nitrification system. Sometime we’re going to see no-drink orders. We will become the Flint, Michigan of Iowa,” she said.

Mazour said the CAFO industry is “polluting our electoral system” and asked audience members to get involved in stopping it. “Right now, Iowa Select is trying to build 19 more factory farms across the state. Call Jack Hanson, president of Iowa Select (641-648-4479) and tell him to stop,” she said.

“When it comes to water quality policy, we have to have polluters putting some skin in the game. These rules should be mandatory, not voluntary, and we should have a moratorium (on new CAFOs) until we have local control,” Mazour said.

Tinker said he is “very pro-ag and pro-livestock.” He said the reason for regulation is there are people out there making poor decisions.

“These people (like Farm Bureau) want to promote their industry, but they want someone else (the DNR) to regulate their bad actors,” he said.

Tinker next talked about the unwritten rule, which he called “Iowa Nice.” “When people start ignoring Iowa Nice, that’s when problems occur,” he said.

Knudson said it is easy to fault the DNR for the problems, but he realizes the regulations they have to fall back on are weak. A few years ago, he helped 42 landowners in an 8.5-square mile radius develop a restrictive covenant, or agreement, that none of their land would ever be used for CAFOs.

“It is a private, contractual agreement between landowners which can impose restrictions that are so reasonable that everyone would be okay with them, but they would prevent the abuse of CAFOs,” he said.

Finally, Falck gave a brief legislative update about current legislation filed in the Iowa General Assembly.

There are several proposals in the works, including one which would reduce the size of certain confinement feeding operations that qualify for exemptions from environmental regulations; a second which provides for the confinement of agricultural animals and the storage of manure or wastewater on karst terrain or terrain that drains into a known sinkhole, and making penalties applicable; and third, which authorizes counties to adopt county legislation relating to the siting of confinement feeding operations.

“We’ve got to address the Matrix,” said Falck.

Trent Loos, a Nebraska farmer and entertainer who was in northeast Iowa for several engagements last week, said he took issue with comments at the forum that agriculture is going in the wrong direction.

He said based on the fact that Iowa has doubled its trout streams since 2002, producers are not as “sloppy” as everyone accuses them of being. “We produce manure, which contains components that are part of the life cycle. These are not toxic pollutants. We have record crops in Iowa,” he said.

Decorah’s Steve McCargar next called the Master Matrix “sham regulation,” adding it has nothing to do with regulating pollutants that come out of CAFOs.

In reference to the ammonia cloud over Iowa, McCargar added, “This is a problem that we all breathe every day. A hog confinement does not create a sacred manure system. It’s the same as human waste. When we have human effluent, we regulate it in order to make it less toxic for our environment.”

Chris Peterson, a pig farmer from Clear Lake, added, “Iowa Nice has left the building. Thirty or 40 years ago, we had independent farmers. Today, 94 percent of independent pig farmers are gone and have been replaced by contract growers.”

Patricia Eddy said Iowa Nice has been replaced by greed. “Yes, air and water quality are important but it’s also important that we’re not abusing animals. Confining these animals so we can make more money is wrong,” she said.

Kevin Lee of Freeport questions why the hog industry doesn’t have to follow the same rules for effluents that other industries, such as paper mills, do.

Tom Hansen of Decorah said he thinks part of the problem is that the “people in Washington think the people in Iowa are dumb and the people in Des Moines think the people in the counties are dumb. I’d like to see this arrogance go away, so we can talk about this without accusing each other.”

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