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An application for an approximately 7,500-head hog confinement northwest of Britt is being evaluated by county officials.

OSAGE | After reviewing an analysis submitted by a non-profit citizens environmental action group, the Mitchell County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Jan. 31 denied two master matrix applications for new concentrated animal feeding operations. 

The application was for construction of two 2,500-head deep pit swine finisher confinement buildings in rural southeastern Mitchell County, submitted by Grey Owl Farm II LLC, operating as Underwood Finisher Farms, Orchard. 

The LLC works with Iowa Select Farms, who operates 25 farms in Mitchell and Howard counties. It employs 61 local residents and contracts with six other area families, operating on an annual payroll of $2.1 million, with another $405,000 in contractor payments. 

The supervisors' denial was based on analysis of the applications by Erica Blair, an organizer on the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s (CCI) Farming and Environment team. CCI was heavily involved in Cerro Gordo and Wright County campaigns regarding Prestage Foods of Iowa's pork processing plant, which will be built near Eagle Grove. 

Blair on the the CCI's website says she "works with communities across the state to lift up family farmers and stop corporate ag giants from polluting Iowa's precious resources."

“We believe supervisors need to be more closely involved with the matrixes,” Mason City resident Tom Willett said during a public hearing. “It’s about water quality and quality of life. These issues need to be addressed."

Willet said he also believes neighbors should be notified by letter when a matrix application is submitted. A master matrix is a scoring system used to evaluate confined feeding operations, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 

A notice of public hearing regarding the matrixes was printed in the Mitchell County Press-News January 18 after being submitted by the county auditor. 

Operators are required to score a minimum of 440 points on the application. Grey Owl Farm II says it scored 445, but Blair's analysis indicates the company took in 105 erroneous points for not meeting DNR standards. That left a score of 340, well below the required 440. 

Blair was contacted Osage resident and CCI, Penney Morse, who presented Blair’s findings during the public hearing.

Morse said she believed someone who had evaluated many such matrixes needed to be contacted and assist the supervisors in their determination. 

“As proposed, the confinement is not in the best interest of the county,” Morse said. 

Iowa law indicates supervisors are mandated to score the master matrix, which includes a site visit to proposed construction. 

However, since the law was passed, Mitchell County says it has relied on applicants scoring their own master matrix applications, with the board approving them as presented. This was the first time the county has denied applications. 

Gene Tinker, Iowa DNR coordinator for animal feeding operations, said via phone Tuesday many Iowa counties will contract with groups or organizations to help score a master matrix. 

Blair, who has been with CCI less than a year, said via phone Tuesday, Mitchell County was about her sixth application to score. She said CCI has evaluated and scored hundreds of applications the past 20 years. 

Blair said no specific training or education was needed to score a master matrix. 

“The application was designed by the legislature so community members can review them to see if something is missing or needed to be looked at closer," she said. 

“We are really excited they did take the community input into account,” Blair said. “They (board of supervisors) did their job. They saw the application wasn’t up to snuff and by denying the application, they did what they needed to do.”

Supervisor Stan Walk said in the past the county has not scored the matrixes before passing them on the DNR. 

"How can we make an issue if we are not qualified to know there is a problem?" he asked Tuesday. "The DNR is supposed to be qualified in making these decisions — just pass it on to the DNR."

Supervisor Shannon Paulus said it is the board's job to "review everything."

“It (application) has been evaluated by someone who knows," Paulus said. "It is our due diligence to deny the application and send it back.”

With denial of the applications, Tinker said his office will now conduct an independent review of the applications to determine an independent score, ultimately determining if the master matrix was correctly scored. 

Tinker said his office annually sees 12 to 15 applications denied by counties across Iowa. Of those denied each year, one or two may be overturned, with the remaining applications either being withdrawn all together or a new application being submitted. 

Keith Kratchmer, environmental compliance officer for Iowa Select Farms, said via phone Tuesday he was not able to comment on the denial, since he was not aware of the specific reason the master matrix was denied.

“The application submitted was completely legal and points taken were valid," he said. 

Iowa Select Farms in July 2016 announced a $100,000 Community Care matching grant program for the community of Riceville. 

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Jim Cross is the editor of the Mitchell County Press-News, another Lee Enterprises newspaper.

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