The failure of leadership behind that pig odor earmark

President Barack Obama proposed reforms to the Congressional earmarking process on Wednesday:

• Members’ earmark requests should be posted on their Web sites.

• There should be public hearings on earmark requests “where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.”

• Any earmark for a for-profit company would have to be competitively bid.

The reforms are intended to deflect criticism after Obama signed the $410 billion 2009 omnibus spending bill, which included about $7.7 billion in earmarks.

I have no time for the Republican Party’s blatant hypocrisy on what is really a “phantom problem”. Republican members of Congress secure plenty of earmarks for their own states even as they posture against “pork.” They don’t seem to care about sweetheart deals and no-bid contracts awarded by executive agencies, which cost taxpayers much more than all earmarks combined.

Beltway journalists have been following the Republican script, focusing way too much on earmarks, even though they are “inconsequential”:

Not only do they represent less than one percent of the federal budget, eliminating them wouldn’t even reduce federal spending by even that tiny amount, or any amount at all, since earmarks by definition simply tag the spending in an already established pot of money, such as the Community Development Block Grant. The only question is whether decisions about funding individual projects should be made by Congress — through earmarks — or by a supposedly apolitical administrative process.

Furthermore, Jonathan Singer points out, earmarks simply don’t register when Americans are asked an open-ended question about their concerns.

I’m all for the reforms Obama announced yesterday, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they will make a dent in government spending.

Although I think concerns about earmarks are exaggerated, I do want to examine the origin of Senator Tom Harkin’s $1.8 million earmark for studying odors from large hog confinements (CAFOs) in Iowa. It has become the poster child for Republican taunts about useless earmarks, prompting Harkin to defend himself (see here and here).

Follow me after the jump for more on why the federal government is funding this study. The earmark has its roots in unfortunate decisions that Iowa Democratic leaders made last year–with the enthusiastic support of statehouse Republicans and corporate ag groups.

To all the self-styled fiscal conservatives who are angry about taxpayer dollars funding pig odor research: Iowa’s progressives and environmentalists could have used your help last year when our legislature was considering the odor study bill.

We tried to tell you that Iowa taxpayers already paid for a similar study in 2002.

We tried to tell you that research in other states (funded all or in part by industry polluters, not taxpayers) “has already been done on cost effective ways to mitigate odor”:

Included are better siting methods, and the use of biofilters and covers on lagoons.  Iowa’s taxpayers should not be required to fund another round of studies on proven technologies when the legislature has not shown any willingness to act on the information already gathered from previous studies.  Instead we should require producers to implement what we already know.

Minnesota has enacted ambient air quality standards that limit hydrogen sulfide to 0.05 parts per million and is working on limiting ammonia emissions.   Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado regulate sulfur emissions and emissions of other types. […]

Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, two odor causing gases emitted from confined feedlot operations, are known to cause serious respiratory problems.

The bacteria found within particulates emitted from livestock operations create lung inflammation that leads to non-allergic asthma.  Twenty-five percent of those who work in confined feedlot operations have some form of respiratory disease, 10% higher than the United States working population as a whole.

We sent out action alerts urging legislators to reject this bad bill, to no avail.

How did the odor study bill pass? Read all the gory details on this page from the Sierra Club’s Iowa website. To make a long story short, the bill started in the House Agriculture Committee chaired by Representative Dolores Mertz (whose family is in the CAFO business). It passed out of Mertz’s committee but would have died after the legislature’s second “funnel” date, if House leaders had not salvaged it by assigning the bill to a different committee.

Last year Democrats held a 53-47 majority in the Iowa House. The odor study bill passed with almost all the Republicans and a minority of Democrats–mostly leadership, first-term Democrats or those representing fairly conservative districts. (Click here for the roll call.) House Speaker Pat Murphy and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed this bill against the wishes of most of their caucus. Corporate ag groups lobbied heavily in favor of the odor study bill, because they knew it would delay regulation of CAFO pollution.

In the Iowa Senate, most of the Republicans and a bare majority of Democrats also approved the odor study bill. Environmental advocates argued that taxpayers should not be funding this research, but they don’t have as much clout at our statehouse as corporate ag groups.  

By the way, Governor Chet Culver demonstrated last week that he can kill a pending bill by threatening to veto it, but he was missing in action when legislators considered the odor study bill. He signed the bill last May despite calls from many environmentalists and organizations to veto it.

A few days ago, Salon’s Alex Koppelman defended Harkin’s earmark on the grounds that livestock odor is

dangerous stuff that cause serious health problems, both physical and mental, in people. It can even contribute to asthma in children.

One study of people living near large hog farms in North Carolina, for instance, concluded “persons exposed to odors from intensive hog operations experienced ‘more tension, more depression, more anger, more fatigue and more confusion’ than a group of unexposed persons.”

A 1998 workshop about the subject, held at Duke University and featuring 50 experts, came to the conclusion that “Our current state of knowledge clearly suggests that it is possible for odorous emissions from animal operations, wastewater treatment, and recycling of biosolids to have an impact on physical health. The most frequently reported symptoms attributed to odors include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headache, nausea, hoarseness, cough, nasal congestion, palpitations, shortness of breath, stress, drowsiness, and alterations of mood.”

Trouble is, the odor study bill approved last year in Iowa does not require any research into the health effects of livestock odors. Representative Mark Kuhn and Senator Joe Bolkcom both introduced amendments that would have required such research, but their amendments were rejected.

Even worse, the odor study bill does not require that CAFOs implement any effective measures identified by the research Iowa and federal taxpayers are funding.

The sad truth is that the odor study bill was not about addressing the problems caused by CAFO odors. On the contrary, the bill was strongly backed by “a Who’s Who of Industry”:

They included lobbyists for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Iowa Poultry Association, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Turkey Federation, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Iowa Select Farms, LLP.   […]

So, now, Iowans are faced with yet another bill that will stall any improvement in mitigating foul odors emanating from large hog lots for at least another five years.  Sierra Club believes that’s just too long to wait.  Polluters should pay for their industrial waste and that includes the livestock industry — not the taxpayers.

Again, this bill passed because the Democratic leaders worked with Republicans to serve corporate interests that continually seek to delay efforts to clean up hog lot pollution. Within the Democratic House and Senate caucuses, there was substantial opposition to the bill.

So I am not too excited that Harkin’s earmark will fund research into “what hogs eat and how the stench can be reduced.” Nor am I confident that this research will, in Harkin’s words, help CAFOs operate “in an environmentally friendly way and be good neighbors.”

We’ve had enough research. It is time to deal with pollution by making CAFOs pay for the harm they cause.

Final note: yesterday American007 diaried a new Survey USA poll showing that only 59 percent of Iowa Democrats approve of Culver’s performance as governor. I’d love to see more detailed research on why so many Democrats don’t approve. My hunch is that the failure to address pollution from industrial agriculture is part of the story. I’d have no trouble filling a room with environmental-minded Democrats who are disappointed that the governor hasn’t done more to protect air quality and water quality. He doesn’t seem interested in “local control” (agricultural zoning at the county level) either, even though he said he was for local control during the 2006 campaign.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

  • Stop the Food Safety Act - HR 875!

    Please stop this very dangerous bill that is a threat to anyone who grows their own food organically!

    This is a vague and broad-based bill that will mean anyone who produces food – even for themselves – will come under strict federal regulation and could result in fees, fines, and prosecution for not complying with federal standards.

    If passed this act will take away the right of people to grow for themselves and force us into buying from big corporate food producers and their products regardless of their effect on our health and well being.


    • Jill Richardson isn't too concerned

      about this bill. She discussed various pending bills on food safety here:…

      I don’t know the details, and I’m not going to panic yet.

      • I dunno dmd, I heard something different at lavidalocavore...

        I know Jill may not think this is a big issue, but one of the comments disturbed me greatly.  One person was complaining of the odor associated with the Amish manuring a pasture. So what do they want, nice clean petrochemical application of fertilizer?

        I lived in Colorado for a bit there, and lots of folks were moving in from California, and those folks were working hard at Californicating Colorado.

        Lots of multi-generational small local “Market Gardens”, or “Truck Patches” down on “The Lanes” outside of Pueblo, were threatened by ecoconscious folks striving to drive these out of existence because of the odor of manure that was used as fertilizer.  And if the wind was just right, the odor would drift right over the McMansions these yuppies had urban sprawled outside of Pueblo.  And those folks raised a big stink over the issue at the time.

  • Thanks for posting on this important issue.

    Keep their feet to the fire.