Lawmakers must address Iowa's livestock laws

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Iowa environmental regulators think it’s a bad idea to build a confinement operation for 2,499 hogs in Allamakee County on steep terrain atop shallow, porous bedrock and overlooking two trout streams.

“A manure spill or leak at this site would have the potential to do great environmental damage to the ground water and surface water,” Department of Natural Resources Specialist Tom McCarthy wrote in a letter to an executive with Reicks View Farms, which is building the confinement.

McCarthy thinks the project is a bad idea. So does DNR Director Chuck Gipp. Neighbors are opposed, as are environmental experts. But thanks to Iowa’s porous laws regulating large livestock operations, they all must stand by and watch the project proceed. Only Reicks can stop it now.

State law requires confinement projects designed to hold more than 2,500 hogs to obtain a construction permit evaluated by state regulators. County officials and residents also get a chance to weigh in. Facilities of that size can’t be built within 1,875 feet of a residence, school or church, or within 2,500 feet of a park or public area. So when the Reicks originally proposed a much larger facility, state officials rejected it.

But now Reicks is planning a facility just one hog below 2,500, so no such permission is needed. The separation distance drops to 1,250 feet. Local officials have no role.

These standards, passed by the Legislature in 2002, were intended to better protect Iowans and the environment against potential problems posed by large concentrations of livestock. Now, they’re little more than nuisance traffic cones producers can easily bypass. That’s not shocking, considering livestock interests were given a big role in writing those laws, largely behind closed doors.

We certainly understand the value of Iowa’s livestock industry, and its importance. We also get the need to strike a regulatory balance that’s not overly burdensome.

But when leaders and experts we depend upon to protect our water, air and land from damage are powerless to stop a project they see as a threat, those laws must change. The Legislature must come up with better, smarter protocols for evaluating livestock projects, and with safeguards empowering regulators and local officials.

It needs to be a legislative priority in 2017. What happened in Allamakee County must not be repeated.

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