Story County Supervisor Candidates Discuss Bakken Pipeline, CAFOs at Final Forum Before Election

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The Story County Administration Building where supervisors meet in Nevada. Photo: storycountyiowa.gov

Four candidates for the Story County Board of Supervisors fielded questions Tuesday evening from members of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, the sister organization of progressive advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, about some of its main issues: imposing a moratorium on new concentrated animal feeding operations in order to improve the state’s water quality, opposing Dakota Access LLC’s Bakken pipeline project, sharply restricting how much an individual can contribute to local campaigns, and raising the state’s minimum wage to $15.

About 50 people showed up at the Ames Public Library’s Farwell T. Brown Auditorium for the event, where Democrat Linda Murken debated incumbent Republican Martin Chitty in their contest to serve the final two years of the late Supervisor Paul Toot’s term; and Democrat Lauris Olson and Republican Scott Schaben discussed their race for incumbent Democratic Supervisor Wayne Clinton’s seat.

Event organizers said Clinton, who announced his retirement earlier this year then reconsidered after Olson won the Democratic primary by entering the race as an independent, wasn’t present because of the Board of Supervisors’ joint meeting with the Ames council and other groups at City Hall about a proposed health center.

CAFOS

Seizing on Clinton’s absence, Olson took her first of several shots at the incumbent by criticizing him for not taking a stronger stand against CAFOs after he concluded there was limited support among county boards for new regulations.

Asked if she would advocate for a moratorium on the construction of new CAFOs until the Department of Natural Resources’ biennial count of the state’s impaired waterways fell below 100, Olson said she would support one on a statewide level. (In its latest report, the DNR identifies 765 impairments [PDF], which are often the result of cropland runoff and CAFO manure.) However, she qualified her answer by expressing concern that, if done wrong, it could result in a rewriting of the rules deregulating CAFO approvals even more.

Currently, counties have limited say over the process. Most use what’s called a master matrix, a point system to judge the health and environmental measures in CAFO applications. If they are scored poorly enough, boards will recommend that applications be denied, but the DNR can overrule them. In 2014, Story County’s board controversially recommended an application for a CAFO to house 4,600 hogs near the headwaters of West Indian Creek that was strongly opposed by ICCI, although the board did unanimously vote in favor of a request from the board in Dickinson County to voice support for having more say in the process at the local level.

Chitty dismissed the moratorium proposal, saying it was unrealistic and would put the board at risk of being sued. “What you guys pejoratively call factory farms, I call them my neighbors,” he said. “I think that it’s an unfortunate thing that here we find ourselves here in Iowa pointing our fingers at our neighbors [who are] doing what they’ve done for multiple generations, and not the least of which they’re better than they ever have been.”

“I don’t think CAFOs are the way that we’ve raised livestock for multiple generations,” Murken countered. She added that she couldn’t imagine supporting any new ones in the county, but also agreed with Olson’s concern, suggesting to address it by drafting a more detailed proposal before presenting it to the state Legislature.

Schaben said he thought it would be “dangerous” to “blindly say no” to the action fund’s proposal but also that existing laws should be better enforced. “I’m a big fan of clean water,” he said. “I, myself, am a certified scuba diver. As crazy as it sounds, I’m an unconventional person — I’d love to see a program for scuba diving in Story County. I think it would be a very unique thing to help market Ames to the Midwest.” (The city actually already has a program.)

Later, audience member Kathy Fromm, an Ames resident, confronted Chitty with a question about the effect of water pollution from Iowa CAFOs on hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to climate change. Iowa has always been an agricultural state, Chitty responded, adding he wouldn’t be comfortable with “renouncing our heritage and our history.” Referring to the concept of global cooling that originated in the 1970s and has since been cited by conservatives who have falsely claimed it was once the consensus view of scientists, Chitty then said: “I look forward to the science taking me to where it’s going to be. I don’t have a formatted belief system, I just know where we are at the moment in time.” (At this moment in time, there is a nearly universal scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is warming because of human activities.)

BAKKEN PIPELINE

A longtime opponent of the Bakken crude oil pipeline who was an organizer for the resistance coalition in Iowa until entering the race for supervisor, Murken criticized the board for declining to pass a resolution taking a symbolic stand against the project last year. “That, combined with the Iowa Utilities Board’s — I don’t even have a word for it — their just lack of sense, knowledge, wisdom, whatever in that decision despite hearing all the evidence they had, that’s when I said, ‘I give up. I need to run for office.’” (In February, IUB member Nick Wagner wrote that he believed “climate change is not entitled to great weight in our deliberations in this proceeding” after the Iowa Sierra Club alleged he had said acknowledging the problem could damage his political future.)

Chitty said he was “indifferent” to the pipeline, which he added the county had no ability to stop. “On my way here tonight, I drove past what is not a protested oil pipeline since I’ve lived by it for over 50 years,” he said, referring to the Wood River crude oil pipeline (PDF) that is part of the Koch brothers’ 4,000 mile pipeline network in the US and Canada.

Schaben, who told the Ames Tribune last week that he supported the board’s decision not to pass the anti-pipeline resolution, said the county needs to be “very selective on picking those battles” and suggested its focus should instead be on holding pipeline inspectors accountable to prevent leaks. Olson reiterated her opposition to the pipeline and described how she’d “tangled” with the county attorney’s office in an effort to get a copy of the contract with the Des Moines inspection company chosen for the job Schaben mentioned, promising greater transparency and access to public records.

MONEY IN POLITICS AND RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE

None of the candidates committed to backing a proposal to cap campaign donations for local elections at $100. Murken was supportive of the concept but suggested the cap not be as low so that candidates with minimal staffers could better finance their campaigns against rivals with more resources. Chitty called the dollar amount arbitrary and said he hadn’t seen any similar proposals he would support either. But he also said fundraising for the race had been “awkward” and seemed to suggest he would like to see the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling overturned, saying he expected the court to revisit it in his lifetime. “I look forward to seeing that outcome,” he said.

The candidate in her race “who has received the biggest checks isn’t here tonight,” Olsen began, again criticizing Clinton before saying she had concerns about whether such an ordinance could legally be implemented (Check out our breakdown of the campaign fundraising and spending for the two board races here.) “If you brought me a proposal, I would certainly look into it but i think missing are those people who have given more money, including maybe some people who belong to this CCI organization to get their input about whether they felt their money actually bought anything,” she added. (Olson is also an ICCI member, as she later disclosed.) Schaben said he thought the proposal was unrealistic and would lack an adequate enforcement mechanism.

Murken was the only candidate to say she would support an effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 if a feasible plan could be laid out to do so, adding that county-level pressure is sometimes needed to get the state Legislature to take action. It appears that could already be happening: Gov. Terry Branstad said last month that he would explore a statewide minimum wage increase to avoid potential problems from a “patchwork” of local increases.

Olson said she supports a minimum wage increase but not to $15 because of its potential to adversely impact small business owners. She added that she liked the idea of a statewide hike but that some of Branstad’s rhetoric “frightens” her because a state law could cap the minimum wage at its current $7.25 an hour, overturning higher local wages. Chitty said he’d asked Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders, a Republican, to bring the issue to the board next March after the end of its annual budgeting process. But he said he opposed raising the minimum wage to $15 because it could cost people their jobs and force them to move elsewhere. He added Branstad was wise to suggest action at the state level.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.