Staff Columnist

Auctioning off Iowa's environment

Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights group, has been investigating Iowa Select's treatment of hogs. This image tak
Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights group, has been investigating Iowa Select’s treatment of hogs. This image taken from a May 19, 2020, video provided by Direct Action Everywhere shows workers in Grundy County walking among carcasses and using bolt guns to kill pigs that remain alive after they had been exposed to heat in an effort to euthanize the animals. Trespass charges against an activist were dropped at the request of Iowa Select, whose personnel had been subpoenaed to testify in the case. (Direct Action Everywhere via AP)

Once more, with feeling. But no optimism.

Groups including the Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch and CCI Action, along with Democratic lawmakers, have unveiled new legislation that would place a moratorium on permitting new hog confinement operations in Iowa. It’s the same plea they’ve made for four years, urging lawmakers to put the brakes on expansion to address multiple environmental problems spawned by “factory farms.”

And the bill is dead in the dirty water.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, conceded that there’s “no chance” Republicans who run the House and Senate will hold even a subcommittee hearing on the bill. Corporate hog producers fight even small changes in livestock rules “tooth and nail,” said Jess Mazour of the Sierra Club, let alone a moratorium on new confinements.

“We have spent decades asking for incremental changes. … Where has that gotten us?” asked Emma Schmidt of Food and Water Watch Iowa.

Nowhere, basically.

Contrast the experiences of these environmental rebels with the rise of the hog empires that have sprung up in Iowa over three decades.

We learned last week, thanks to the Associated Press’ Ryan Foley, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds auctioned off an afternoon of her time to help a charity named for the founders of one of Iowa’s largest pork producers, among her largest campaign donors.

A winning bid at the May 2019 auction for the Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation would buy an “afternoon with Iowa’s leading lady.”

“From the top of the gold dome to the governor’s office, you’ll be treated to a tour unlike any other,” according to documents from a public information request filed by Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights group that has investigated Iowa Select’s treatment of hogs.

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The winning bidder was Gary Lynch, a large hog producer and GOP donor. He paid $4,250. What a bargain.

In January, the AP also reported that Reynolds had sent a public health strike team to provide coronavirus testing to Iowa Select Farms employees at the company’s suburban Des Moines office. It was another episode raising questions about preferential treatment for donors.

The Hansens, Deb, Jeff and their son, Michael, have donated $400,000 to Reynolds’ campaign account since she became governor in 2017. On May 30, 2017, Deb and Michael Hansen wrote Reynolds two checks totaling $275,000. The Hansens donated $4,500 by hosting a fundraiser for the governor in June 2018 and paid $1,690 for a flight Reynolds took in October 2019.

On Jan. 15, 2020, Daryl Olsen of Audubon, an executive with AVMC, the nation’s 10th largest pork-producer, donated a $10,800 flight to Reynolds.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, who has said a moratorium bill will not be taken up, received a $25,000 contribution from Michael Hansen in 2019.

Iowa Select Farms, according to its website, is the nation’s fourth-largest pork producer, marketing more than 5 million hogs each year. And the company has been a key player since the beginning of the confinement explosion in Iowa, including the push for passage of House File 519 in 1996. That’s the law that created statewide confinement rules and shut the door on giving Iowans and their local governments any real say in where confinements are built.

In 2002, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, meeting behind closed doors, drafted an overhaul of state rules and created the “master matrix” scoring system that was supposed to give local officials more input into confinement siting.

But permit applicants have to score only 440 points on the matrix out of a maximum of 880. The matrix barely addresses environmental concerns.

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The same GOP legislative leaders who won’t consider a moratorium also will not look at legislation to improve the matrix scoring system. It works fine for our big hog donors, so why change it?

During the pandemic, Reynolds looked the other way as meatpacking workers toiled in unsafe conditions. Hundreds became ill. Some died. She sided with the packers, and the hog producers eager to get their product to market. The workers were expendable.

Hogs have become the most powerful political force in Iowa. And so long as regulations remain in the hands of state regulators, directed by Statehouse politicians, and while the Environmental Protection Commission is controlled by agricultural interests, the industry’s influence and its campaign bucks will keep the confinements coming. The Department of Natural Resources lacks adequate funding to enforce the regulations that are already on the books.

The status quo will continue. Manure from 24 million hogs will be spread on cropland, adding to the overuse of commercial fertilizer. The excess is washing into Iowa’s impaired waterways, spawning toxic lake algae blooms and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.” Manure spills directly into rivers and streams causing fish kills.

We’ll keep cramming confinements into impaired and threatened watersheds. Iowans and their local elected officials won’t be able to do much about it.

So it turns out the state’s environment also has been auctioned off. The politicians were bought relatively cheaply, but the real cost has been far more steep. A lot of it will be paid by rural Iowans. And the winning bidders will keep working tooth and nail to make sure Iowa continues its moratorium on any meaningful steps to protect our environment.

(319) 398-6262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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