Staff Columnist

No pandemic shelter for Iowa's environment

Thick, green algae lines the beach at Rock Creek State Park on Aug. 10, 2013.  (Iowa Environmental Council photo)
Thick, green algae lines the beach at Rock Creek State Park on Aug. 10, 2013. (Iowa Environmental Council photo)

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across Iowa, more of the state’s 23 million hogs will be allowed to shelter in large confinement operations, under an order by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

OK, so hog safety is not really the point of Reynolds’ order relaxing environmental regulations and enforcement for livestock operations, stormwater permit holders, landfills and others. The Department of Natural Resources is “attempting to provide some regulatory relief and mitigate the economic effects of business closings and social distancing standards…,” according to a memo signed by DNR Director Kayla Lyon and state homeland security chief V. Joyce Flinn.

After years of watching environmental policy in Iowa, I figured providing regulatory relief to mitigate economic effects was business as usual. Nitrates and phosphorus run off our farmland, fouling waterways and suffocating aquatic life over a massive expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, and we don’t make anyone do anything about it. Our waterways are filled with regulatory relief.

However, under the order, the DNR “reserves the right to take enforcement action for conduct that endangers Iowa’s natural resources or the public’s health and welfare.”

Now that seems new. The relaxation lasts until April 30, but could be extended.

One of the relaxed rules allows hog producers to “overstock” confinements, meaning they can house more hogs than their construction permitted capacity allows. During the pandemic, the department figures some producers may have to hold on to livestock longer. They’re still required to contain all manure and update mandated plans for managing it.

The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club thinks this is a bad idea, warning that more manure will be applied to cropland than is “agronomically appropriate.” That excess will run off into waterways, including lakes where nutrients spawn toxic algae blooms, the group argues.

“There is a high risk that double stocking will create so much waste that the manure-holding structures will overflow, creating more pollution risk to our rivers, streams, and lakes.,” said Pam Mackey Taylor, chapter director.

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But as regulation relaxation takes hold, what’s not stopping is the permitting of new confinement operations. The Sierra Club and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, or CCI, have called for a moratorium on new confinements.

CCI points out that social distancing not only hampers producers but also makes it difficult for the public to weigh in on confinement projects in their vicinity. In Fayette County, more than 200 residents signed a petition opposing a 7,000-plus hog operation planned near Hawkeye and convinced the Board of Supervisors to oppose the project.

Of course, because the planned confinement scored a whopping 480 points on the DNR Master Matrix scoring system, according to an account in Fayette County Newspapers, the county’s objection won’t mean much. The DNR only requires a score of 440 for approval, out of a possible 880. More regulatory relief.

CCI’s Ava Auen-Ryan told me in an email that the DNR has approved the permit and the county has until Tuesday to appeal. The pandemic will make it much tougher for residents to provide meaningful input into that process, or when the ag-dominated Environmental Protection Commission takes up the issue.

“It’s a convoluted process, made even more difficult by the moment we are in,” Auen-Ryan said.

Fish kills are among the top three impairments marring rivers and streams listed on the state’s 2018 impaired water list. More than half of those were caused by manure and fertilizer spills. According to CCI’s tally there have been more than 800 manure spills in Iowa since 1996.

That’s hardly surprising considering the calculation released last year by University of Iowa engineer Christopher Jones. Jones says Iowa’s 3.2 million people and 110 million hogs, chickens, cattle and turkeys generate waste equal to that of 169 million people. We’re the poop capital of the United States.

With the DNR now less able to police all that nutrient, and with Iowans less able to weigh in on thousands of hogs moving into their neighborhoods, a moratorium makes sense. With 23 million hogs already in residence, it’s hard to see how a moratorium would put much of a dent in the industry.

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And it’s way past time for the state to revisit the matrix confinement scoring system, approved by lawmakers 18 years ago. Several counties, including in rural areas, have called on lawmakers to revise the system. The response has been crickets.

But I expect the Reynolds administration will take its environmental cues from the Trump Environmental Protection Agency, which is suspending environmental regulations and shoving through harmful rule changes with little chance for comment, all under the pretext of a pandemic response. The regulation rollback is “temporary,” although there’s no end date.

So with people and pigs sheltering, and distracted, the rollbacks and relaxation will continue. The environment will have no place to hide.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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