DES MOINES | Over loud protests, state regulators voted unanimously Monday to reject proposed changes to rules governing large-scale livestock feeding operations in rural areas that advocates say are needed to protect Iowa's land, water and air but ag producers argue would hurt their industry.
Members of the state Environmental Protection Commission heard nearly two hours of impassioned pleas from both sides hoping to influence their decision on a petition filed by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch seeking to strengthen Iowa's master matrix -- a scoring system for confinement animal feeding operations used by the Iowa DNR in granting construction permits to applicants.
"Reading through the petition I found that it was going to be unfeasible and really unattainable for making any changes at this point," said EPC Chairman Chad Ingels of Randalia, noting a DNR analysis found it would be extremely difficult for applicants to score high enough to qualify for a permit under the proposal.
"I think everybody had a good chance to review a very extensive set of comments we received from the public on both sides of the issue and it was a pretty easy decision to make at this point, considering how far the petition went and really outside of what the Legislature wants us to do," he said.
In their petition, the groups asserted legislation created 15 years ago has failed to live up to the promise of giving communities a greater voice in the siting of "factory farms" and in protections from the environmental issues they create.
But farmers and commodity group representatives told regulators the changes sought effectively would impose a moratorium on new facilities -- which would lead to having fewer jobs, hurting the economy and putting some producers out of business.
"The matrix has really tied our hands," said Michael Carberry, a supervisor in Johnson County, one of 17 counties that have asked the state for more local control and revisions to strengthen regulations. "I'm here to ask you to do your job so I can do mine."
Mark Kuhn, a Floyd County supervisor and former state lawmaker who helped draft the master matrix language in 2002, said the state law is outdated and has become "an easy litmus test to pass" for applicants seeking to build large livestock feeding operations. "It's been 15 years since we've addressed this issue," he said. "It's time."
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Al Wulfekuhle, a past president of the Iowa Pork Producers from Quasqueton, said the current rules are working and most livestock producers in Iowa are trying to do the right thing in being responsible stewards of their resources.
"The petition would put a moratorium on hog production the way it is written," he said, which draw cheers from some of the meeting attendees.
Brianne Streck of Moville testified she and her husband "work hard to raise livestock the right way," but supporters of the petition "would like to make you think that I am the face of evil."
She said changes envisioned in the petition would "give others the ability to pick and choose where and how we can raise livestock," which she said would hurt young farmers and rural communities.
"We don't want to go back to horses, candles and ice boxes," said Randy Dreher, an Audubon farmer who raises cattle and row crops, in opposing the changes envisioned in the petition.
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DNR attorneys recommended the commission turn down the request because it would go beyond the legislative intent of laws designed to balance the needs of the livestock industry with the health and safety of citizens. The department argued, and the commission agreed, that any major changes in the way livestock facilities are regulated in Iowa would have to come from the Legislature and be signed by the governor.
"The master matrix is the result of legislation so it's going to require the Legislature to go back and look at that. We cannot exceed the authority of the statute by rule," DNR Director Chuck Gipp said.
EPC Commissioner Barbara Hovland of Mason City agreed that it's up to legislators.
"I am a firm believer that they created it and they need to start discussing it," she said.
However, Ocheyedan independent Sen. David Johnson told the commission the master matrix provisions he helped create in 2002 are no longer working.
"The Iowa Legislature is also failing in its role of oversight in all things agricultural," he said. "The matrix has become a rubber stamp."
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At the start of the meeting, Ingels cautioned the more than 100 people in attendance to "please refrain from creating havoc" during the meeting, but the room exploded into chants of opposition once the commission rejected the petition.
Citizens for Community Improvement member Rosie Partridge of Sac City said she felt betrayed by the vote.
"It is clear that the DNR and the EPC lack the political will to stand up to the factory farm industry and make these much-needed improvements for thousands of Iowans. Shame on them," she said. "This is not over. We will keep fighting."