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Iowa state panel tackles hog confinement issues

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DES MOINES — Members of the state Environmental Commission voted 8-0 Tuesday to deny an appeal by Cerro Gordo County officials to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources decision to approve construction of a hog confinement facility near Ventura.

Also, the panel adopted legislative changes to state regulations governing large-scale livestock confinement operations that drew praise from industry representative but displeased citizen and environmental groups that wanted tougher standards.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Cerro Gordo County Administrative Officer Tom Drzycimski said the proposal from River Edge Farms LLC to build a facility that would house 4,992 head of finish hogs near Ventura met all the requirements under a state master matrix for confinement animal feeding operation.

However, Drzycimski said there were environmental, odor, health and other concerns that prompted the county Board of Supervisors to recommend denial of the application before DNR officials rejected the denial.

Des Moines attorney Eldon McAfee countered the department had properly granted the permit and River Edge Farms owner Matt Roenfanz said he had not encountered any direct complaint about his planned facility. He noted he has operated a separate 6,000-head hog operation for 14 years without problems, and read a letter from State Rep. Terry Baxter, R-Garner, who lives near that facility, stating “I can vouch that it will be a top-notch operation with the best possible management.”

Before the commission vote, Drzycimski said there were concerns raised at an Aug. 16 public hearing about the environmental impact, particularly because of the proposed site’s proximity to homes and nearby wildlife areas. He asked the commissioners to at least consider modifications or setting some conditions for the project if they rejected the county’s appeal.

Drzycimski said the county could appeal Tuesday’s decision to district court, adding, “We’ll have to weigh our options and determine whether it’s worth it to move forward with that.”

“Folks in Cerro Gordo County voiced overwhelming opposition to this massive hog factory farm. It’s a major threat to water, public lands and neighbors. We don’t want it, and we are appalled that the DNR and EPC didn’t respect our wishes,” said Tom Willet, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement from Mason City.

After the meeting, DNR Director Chuck Gipp said the state agency had no option but to approve the project because the landowner had complied with all the regulations.

“Once they passed it, it was disingenuous to put it in our laps because we don’t have any legal authority to do that once they approve the master matrix. We don’t get to make the law. We follow the law.”

Gipp said that was the case for the confinement feeding operation rules as well, in which the commission approved changes supported by cattle, pork and farm organizations related to separation distances for livestock buildings, hauling dried nutrients for use as fertilizers and other changes enacted by lawmakers that the panel put into rules.

But opponents said commissioners should close what they consider to be a loophole that allows confinement operations to build facilities in close proximity while keeping the numbers under the threshold triggering permit and design regulations.

“The industry has had five years to implement best practices, but what do we see instead? Business as usual and voluntary compliance continues to be a colossal failure after two decades,” said Cherie Mortice of Des Moines.

Commissioners LaQuanda Hoskins and Joe Riding opposed the rules revisions with Riding expressing concern that lakes are no longer part of the definition for “public use area” which protects lakes from new factory farm construction.

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