Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Rejects Stronger CAFO Rules

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At its monthly meeting today, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Commission unanimously rejected a petition filed by the progressive advocacy groups Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch to strengthen the process through which the DNR evaluates applications for new CAFOs.

Currently, counties can choose whether to participate in a scoring system (most do) using what’s called a master matrix, a set of environmental and quality-of-life criteria to determine if a new large-scale animal feeding lot would satisfy concerns about health and environmental risks. If a CAFO application scores below a minimum threshold, county supervisors will typically recommend that the DNR reject the application, although that rarely happens and the process is non-binding regardless, meaning the state can ignore the recommendations.

CAFOs are a leading cause of water pollution in the state, where less than 25 percent of waterways meet federal water quality standards. Even so, most water quality efforts in Iowa are voluntary thanks to aggressive lobbying from agribusiness interests, and since the master matrix system was implemented in 2002, just over 2 percent of CAFO applications have been rejected.

The rulemaking petition submitted by ICCI and Food & Water Watch requested that the master matrix passing score be raised above its current 50 percent (“an ‘F’ by most standards,” an ICCI statement released after the commission’s vote said). It also asked that participating counties be given a one-time enrollment instead of having to reaffirm their commitment to the system each year, demanded tougher pollution mitigation standards for CAFOs and the removal of criteria that “do not provide meaningful environmental or community benefits,” and requested an increased separation distance between CAFOs and public places including schools and private residences.

ICCI also submitted a collection of letters which repeated demands the group has been making for years, including a moratorium on new CAFO construction until water pollution is better addressed, local control over CAFO citing, mandatory water quality regulations at the state level, and tougher enforcement of existing regulations.

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.