Iowa House votes to relax manure storage rules for CAFOs (updated)

In an ideal world, evidence that more than half of Midwest rivers and streams can’t support aquatic life would inspire policy-makers to clean up our waterways. Rivers that are suitable for swimming, fishing, and other recreation can be a huge economic engine for Iowa communities.

We live in Iowa, where most of our lawmakers take the Patty Judge view: “Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions.”

Yesterday the Iowa House approved a bill to relax manure storage regulations for large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). All of the House Republicans and two-thirds of the Democrats supported this bad legislation. Details on the bill and the House vote are below.

Proponents of House File 512 claim it would make life easier for farmers who want to “downsize” their operations temporarily.

“This bill allows you to notify the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] that you will no longer have animals above the 500 animal unit that requires the manure management plan,” [Republican State Representative Lee] Hein said, “simplifies it and allows those buildings to remain intact in case, say, for instance the next generation comes along in a few years and wants to enter back into the hog operation.”

If that were the intended goal of this bill, Iowa lawmakers should have had no problem with an amendment proposed by State Representative Chuck Isenhart, the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee. His amendment was short and simple:

During the period of election [to be a small animal feeding operation], a manure storage structure that is part of the confinement feeding operation is not used to store manure originating from a location outside the confinement feeding operation.

In other words, go ahead and mothball your barn in case your child wants to come back to the farm someday. But in the meantime, don’t use your barn to store manure overflowing from someone else’s CAFO. During yesterday’s floor debate (audio available at Radio Iowa), Isenhart warned that House Fill 512 would become a “fall-back” option for CAFO operators who don’t want to invest in adequate manure storage facilities. He noted that the original bill does not recognize potential hazards from manure spills during transportation to a neighboring farm and offloading.

House members rejected Isenhart’s amendment by voice vote shortly before the vote on final passage for House File 512. Incidentally, Hein (the floor manager of this bill) chairs the House Environmental Protection Committee. We can see how committed he is to that mission.

But I don’t mean to pin all the blame for this bad bill on House Republicans. Most of the Democratic caucus helped to pass it by 83 votes to 16. The roll call (pdf) shows that all 52 Republicans present voted yes, joined by the following 31 House Democrats: Bruce Bearinger, Deborah Berry, Dennis Cohoon, David Dawson, Nancy Dunkel, Ruth Ann Gaines, Mary Gaskill, Chris Hall, Curt Hanson, Dave Jacoby, Jerry Kearns, Dan Kelley, Bob Kressig, Daniel Lundby, Jim Lykam, Helen Miller, Dan Muhlbauer, Pat Murphy, Tyler Olson, Scott Ourth, Todd Prichard, Joe Riding, Patti Ruff, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Art Staed, Sharon Steckman, Sally Stutsman, Phyllis Thede, Roger Thomas, Mary Wolfe, and Frank Wood.

I understand the political realities. Many of these Democrats represent rural areas; others represent urban districts where the livestock industry is important to the local economy. The bill’s going to pass anyway, so why stick your neck out? The sad fact is, agribusiness interest groups will endorse challengers to most of these Democrats in the next election, ignoring the friendly votes cast to appease Big Ag.

Next time I receive a fundraising call from the Iowa Democratic Party or the House Truman Fund, I will let them know that this bill is one reason I’m keeping my checkbook closed. At least a dozen of the Democrats who voted for House File 512 represent rock-solid safe districts. That includes you, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Tyler Olson.

Credit goes to the House Democrats who had the guts to vote against House File 512 yesterday: Ako Abdul-Samad, Marti Anderson, John Forbes, Lisa Heddens, Bruce Hunter, Chuck Isenhart, Anesa Kajtazovic, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, Kevin McCarthy, Jo Oldson, Rick Olson, Mark Smith, Todd Taylor, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, and Cindy Winckler.

The lobbyist declarations on House File 512 show that the Iowa Pork Producers Association is the only group registered supporting the bill. These organizations have lobbyists registered against the bill:

Iowa Environmental Council

Food & Water Watch

Des Moines Water Works

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund

Iowa Farmers Union

Sierra Club Iowa Chapter

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s Action Fund is calling on Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal to block the Senate version of House File 512. That bill, known as Senate File 418, has already passed the Senate Agriculture Committee and is eligible for floor debate. Gronstal has the final call on what comes up for a vote. In the past, he has supported some bad legislation designed to support factory farms. But in those days, Senate President Jack Kibbie always had Big Ag’s back. Now the Senate President is Pam Jochum, who has a strong environmental voting record. Maybe she can prevail on Gronstal.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp does not agree with Iowa CCI’s interpretation of this bill’s potential impact on water quality. No big surprise there. The Iowa DNR’s lobbyist is registered “undecided” on House File 512.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- House File 512 originated in the House Agriculture Committee, currently chaired by Pat Grassley. He is considered a leading contender for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2014 if current Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey runs for U.S. Senate.

P.P.S- Environmentalists living in the first Congressional district should ask Pat Murphy to explain this vote when he asks for their support in the IA-01 Democratic primary. In fairness to Murphy, he has voted against some other bad legislation favored by Big Ag in recent years.

UPDATE: Representative Isenhart responded to my request for comment on the passage of this bill.

Rep. Hein, the bill’s floor manager and a hog producer, admitted in his remarks what environmental groups feared the bill will make possible: that so-called “mothballed” confinement facilities can still be used to house sick animals and the manure pits to store excess waste from other facilities, all without updated manure management and other plans to mimimize risks to the environment and animal safety.

APRIL 5 UPDATE: The Iowa Senate will not take up this bill during the 2013 legislative session, according to this Iowa CCI Action alert. In an article on legislation that will not clear the second “funnel” deadline today, William Petroski and Jason Noble mentioned that Senate Democrats are rejecting “a proposal to revise rules on hog feeding operations.”  

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  • Interesting

    There’s some very good people who voted for this.  I don’t think they would let serious issues go unchecked if they are as dire as some may say.  I’m not an environmentalist scientist so I can’t really speak on the issue with some of the accuracy that others might be able to.

    Looking at the Noes if I were in your shoes I would reward John Forbes and maybe Mark Smith because they are the only ones that may get a particularly stiff challenge.

    In the name of full disclosure I don’t really care for Todd Taylor and actually gave money to his opponent just to make a point, so I guess that shows how conservative I am.  

    • I think Chuck Isenhart

      is better informed on these dangers than the vast majority of Iowa lawmakers in either party.

      The main increased spill risk relates to the transporting and loading/unloading of excess manure. If these farmers want to keep a vacant building available for their children to use someday, I don’t have a problem with that. But that’s not what is driving the Pork Producers to support this bill. Voting down Isenhart’s amendment is proof.

  • My rep, Dan Muhlbauer, voted for this.

    I sent him an email asking him to vote no (in response to a message from ICCI). Muhlbauer’s response:

    This bill is not about factory farms but beginning farmers. I am trying to do all I can to help beginning farmers, so factory farmers don’t take over.

    1st.  A pit in an old barn will never go bad, unless a wall was to fall in. There has never been a violation or contamination from a concrete pit, the building and equipment may rust and fall in put the pit would be fine.

    2nd. These old pits are much too small to use for holding pits for factory farm’s. You are right the more you transport liquid the greater the chance of a spill, and  the higher the cost, so not feasible.

    3rd. As producers we know how large of a tank one would need for the number of animals in a site. 99% of the time one of two things happens. You have a broken water line because of a number of reasons and come back to find your barn flooded. Or because of weather and the time lines that are regulated by law, we do not have time to pump. Not being able to pump on frozen can give very little time after harvest when we have a long fall or a wet spring.

    This bill is not a loophole for factory farms, but is a chance for beginning farmers.

    Muhlbauer is a cattle farmer, so I’m not surprised at his support, but I’m not sure the bill is the environmental disaster that ICCI claims. The solution would be for the senate to add the Isenhart amendment to the bill.

    • let's see whether the Senate

      adds the amendment. If transporting the manure were really not economically feasible, the House should have approved the amendment.