Government

Pristine valley in Allamakee County 'worst place' for hog facility

Initially denied permit, Reicks View Farms now plans one just under threshold

Monte Marti of Cedar Rapids carries a ladder to a sinkhole on his parent’s farm in Lansing on Monday, May 2, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Monte Marti of Cedar Rapids carries a ladder to a sinkhole on his parent’s farm in Lansing on Monday, May 2, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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LANSING — A corporate pork producer’s insistence on constructing confinement buildings in an environmentally sensitive area of Allamakee County could lead to changes in laws governing the siting of such facilities, state officials say.

In what many neighbors describe as an “in your face” move, Reicks View Farms applied in March for a state permit to construct confinement buildings in a region of porous, shallow bedrock in steep terrain overlooking two streams with naturally reproducing trout.

Because of the plan’s threat to groundwater, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources declined to approve a construction permit for the initially proposed three-building farrowing and gestation complex designed to accommodate 6,249 farrowing sows and 1,250 gilts, which would produce an estimated 5.8 million gallons of manure a year.

After that refusal, Reicks View Farms submitted a revised plan for two smaller buildings on the same site with a capacity of 2,499 sows and gilts, which would place it just below the 2,500 animal-capacity threshold that triggers the need for a construction permit.

State Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, one of the lawmakers who drafted legislation in 2002 to address confined animal feeding operations, said it is time to review laws on their placement.

“There have to be higher standards when you are in the most sensitive areas of the state,” he said.

Noting that Iowans’ awareness and appreciation of water quality have increased dramatically since 2002, Johnson said, “We need to revisit the law and bring everybody to the table including environmentalists. This is not just a farm issue.”

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Johnson said he is hearing more and more about corporations scaling back proposals so they fall beneath the 2,500-hog threshold for requiring a construction permit and about corporations making up the difference through multiple proposals submitted by associates.

DNR Director Chuck Gipp, who visited the proposed site during the initial review process for the 7,499-animal facility, said, “If we couldn’t refuse that one on the basis of geology, then there is no place that we can refuse.”

“We still have the same concerns, but less discretion. There’s not a whole lot we can do under the existing laws,” Gipp said.

Asked if he thinks the company’s insistence on building there could have legislative repercussions, Gipp replied, “Oh absolutely. They are bringing on a new wave of regulation.”

Reicks View Farms told The Gazette by email that its facilities “are over-engineered to retain the manure produced there so it can be used to improve crop ground.”

The company said it uses advanced technology “to deliver the manure to the crop root zone” and has “the tools to effectively prevent runoff and protect water quality.”

Though the company said it can’t predict what the Legislature would do, it will, it said, “continue to collaborate with public and private environmental experts on protecting water quality.”

Asserting that it works hard to be good farming neighbors, Reicks View Farms said it would “build the kind of facility that is right for the site and for the environment and for our farm, according to the regulations we farmers operate under.”

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Ron Birkenholz, a spokesman for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said the organization encourages members to seek the help of the Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers in selecting an appropriate site.

Reicks View Farms did not consult the coalition, Executive Director Brian Waddingham said. If it had, he said, it would have gotten advice on strengthening neighbor relations and safeguarding air and water quality.

In terms of the health of both neighbors and the environment, Michael Osterholm, an environmental health science professor at the University of Minnesota with ties to northeast Iowa’s driftless region, said he cannot imagine a more dangerous location for a livestock confinement.

“It’s like striking a match next to an open gas tanker. With the steep slopes and perforated bedrock, the manure will get into the water,” he said.

Many Allamakee County residents have organized to oppose construction and have placed signs calling attention to it along Highway 9, north of the proposed site.

“There should not be a factory farm here. This is absolutely the worst location I’ve seen for a confined animal feeding operation,” said Jessica Mazur, an organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Involvement.

Apart from the common objections to foul odors, impaired air quality and traffic, “It’s overlooking a pristine trout stream in a region of karst topography,” which permits pollutants in surface water to flow directly into groundwater, Mazur said.

“This is not the right place for this building. We just have to fight this,” said Monte Marti of Cedar Rapids, whose family farm shares a 1-mile border with the proposed facility.

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As written, Iowa law favors corporate farmers “at the real expense of their neighbors and the deterioration of natural resources,” he said.

Marti said the anticipated smell does not even make his list of top reasons for opposing the project.

“The smell is a given, but that’s not the battle we’re fighting,” said Brad Krambeer, who lives along Village Creek Road about 2,000 feet from the proposed facility.

Krambeer said he worries a lot more about air and water quality and the reduction in the value of the home he has shared with his family for the past 18 years.

Krambeer said a real estate agent told him his property, in the path of prevailing westerly winds, could lose $40,000 to $50,000 in value.

His 220-foot-deep well, and those of similar depths of his neighbors, will be susceptible to nitrate and bacteria contamination if manure from the facility leaks into the groundwater, he said.

His wife, Becky Krambeer, a nurse practitioner, said she worries about airborne pathogens sickening her family, which includes two children, as well as nearby friends and neighbors.

DNR fisheries technician Theresa Shay described Village Creek as “a spring-fed cold water stream with a gravel and pebble bottom and very little silt.”

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Both it and Jones Creek, a main tributary, are “high quality trout streams” with naturally reproducing brown trout, she said. The creeks drain a scenic watershed of “steep bluffs and narrow valleys,” Shay said.

That steep terrain, with its history of flash flooding, increases the odds that manure from the site would get washed downhill into the trout streams, said Emily Neal, assistant director for the Center for Sustainable Communities at Luther College in Decorah.

“That breathtaking valley is the worst place to put a livestock confinement,” she said. Neal, who lived on Village Creek Road from 2001 to 2009, said she and her neighbors experienced four Village Creek floods in those eight years.

In 2001, a DNR survey crew found 103 wild, naturally reproducing brown trout in the 0.6 mile stretch of Jones Creek running though the Neals’ property.

State Rep. Patti Ruff, D-McGregor, whose District 56 includes the proposed operation, said she has spoken at length with the site’s neighbors and the DNR.

Ruff said she would be open to serving on an interim committee formed to review the siting laws.

State Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, whose District 28 encompasses the site, said Republicans talked about revisiting laws governing confinements at their last caucus in the 2016 Legislature.

“I think it is something we need to address — to make sure facilities are sited appropriately,” he said.

While Breitbach said he does not want to impede farmers’ ability to make a living, “we also have to be cognizant of our natural resources and the need to protect them,” he said.

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“We need to sit down with Farm Bureau and the Iowa Pork Producers to make sure we are good stewards so we don’t have to resort to more regulation,” Breitbach said.

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