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Lawsuit over Iowa’s Supreme Beef feedlot could set precedent for future manure regulation
11,600-head cattle feedlot in Northeast Iowa has political connections
DES MOINES — A lawsuit argued Friday asks the question: How much power does the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have to regulate animal feeding operations?
Supreme Beef, an 11,600-head cattle feedlot near Monona, is in the watershed of Bloody Run, one of Iowa’s most prized trout streams, and sits atop porous bedrock where a manure spill could easily contaminate groundwater.
The Sierra Club of Iowa and Trout Unlimited are asking a Polk County judge to overturn an April 2021 decision by the Iowa DNR to approve Supreme Beef’s plan for storing and disposing of manure.
The nature advocacy groups argue the state approved the nutrient management plan with incorrect calculations about how much manure could be safely applied to nearby farm fields. The agency also applied varying standards to the operation, Wally Taylor, a Marion attorney for the Sierra Club, told Polk County District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg on Friday morning.
“The DNR treated Supreme Beef as a confinement operation when it was to Supreme Beef’s benefit and an open feedlot when that was to Supreme Beef’s benefit,” Taylor said. “DNR did not verify or question any of the clear red flags, even when members of the public raised issues in public comments.”
The Iowa DNR, represented at the hearing by David Steward, an assistant Iowa Attorney General, said the agency has three criteria to consider with nutrient management plans: The land available for manure application, the composition of the manure itself and whether the facility has capacity to store manure in between land applications.
“The DNR determined the facility’s 39 million gallon capacity was more than adequate and there’s no record to the contrary,” Steward said.
A disputed factor is whether the Iowa DNR should have approved manure sample calculations from a smaller beef slaughtering facility as a proxy for what Supreme Beef would be producing. Steward said the state checked to see if the nutrient levels in the manure sample submitted were similar to other cattle feedlots.
“They didn’t just take her word on it,” he said. “They didn’t turn a blind eye.”
Rosenberg interrupted Steward and Supreme Beef’s attorney Steve Pace several times to ask questions.
“The DNR did a lot here to try to make sure they got it right,” Pace said.
“Aren’t you supposed to do that too?” Rosenberg asked.
Pace said Supreme Beef hired Becky Sexton, a consultant with Twin Lakes Environmental and wife of state Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, to try to submit the most accurate nutrient management plan.
There are other political connections with Supreme Beef’s application.
Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, is the father-in-law of Jared Walz, one of Supreme Beef’s owners. Zumbach contacted Iowa DNR Director Kayla Lyon about the project in early October 2020. He told The Gazette in May 2021 he was not attempting to pressure the agency to approve the larger facility, but just to get the “right folks” in contact with Walz.
The Sierra Club mentions the Zumbach connection in the petition, originally filed in filed in September 2021.
After the hourlong hearing Friday, Rosenberg said he will rule at a later date.
Michael Schmidt, attorney for the Iowa Environmental Council, said the decision will set a precedent for how future nutrient management plans are reviewed in a state where animal production is increasing.
“Approval of this means open feedlots or feedlots can be built anywhere in the state, because this is the most sensitive terrain,” he said after the hearing. “They made mistakes in the nutrient management plan so having this approved means DNR’s oversight is extremely limited and doesn’t have much effect.”
The Supreme Beef feedlot now is trying to remove the liquid from all its manure so it can sell is as a “dry” solid. If the firm processes all its manure this way, owners would have less state supervision.
The Sierra Club opposes this plan because it would mean the state would not know where the dry manure would be used.
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