With Hog-Waste Runoff Blamed for Fouling Drinking Water, EPA Urges State to Step Up Oversight of Livestock Facilities
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 15th, 2013 and is being reprinted here under fair-use laws because the original article is only available to those with a paid subscription: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324392804578358553768567758.html
Federal regulators are pushing the nation’s largest pork-producing state to start inspecting thousands of livestock and poultry operations in response to concerns over water pollution caused by runoff and spills from ever-larger farms.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed that Iowa officials inspect about 8,000 livestock operations in the state to determine if they should be subject to stepped-up regulation after the agency found the state wasn’t meeting minimum federal requirements. The EPA says the two sides are nearing an agreement, but the state isn’t ready to sign off.
Livestock producers oppose the inspections, saying they would be an unnecessary intrusion and a waste of taxpayer money. But others in the state are pushing for Iowa to get stricter with facilities that raise thousands of animals. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and environmental groups petitioned the EPA to take over oversight from the state, leading the agency to propose the new inspections.
“Very little is being done to prevent pollution,” said Barbara Kalbach, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, whose family has a corn and soybean farm in western Iowa. “It has been resisted at every turn.
The EPA’s plan for stepped-up regulation puts Iowa and its more than 20 million hogs at the center of a national debate over how to regulate livestock and poultry operations, which are blamed for water pollution in a series of farm states. Animal operations are subject to the federal Clean Water Act, but the EPA relies largely on states for oversight, and environmental groups have complained that enforcement in some states is insufficient.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from manure can seep into waterways. The pollution is blamed for fouling drinking water and is seen as contributing to a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the fishing industry.
Tensions over livestock operations and their environmental impact stem in part from sweeping consolidation in recent decades that has resulted in fewer—but much larger—operations in which manure is concentrated in huge quantities. Federal data from last year show 87% of the nation’s hogs were raised at operations with 2,000 or more animals, while the last census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2007 counted 8,330 hog operations in Iowa, a drop of 18% from 2002.
In recent years, the EPA has imposed restrictions to cap pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay region and ordered increased oversight of Illinois livestock operations. Meanwhile, lawmakers in North Carolina, the second-largest producer of hogs after Iowa, passed a law in 2007 banning the construction of new hog-waste “lagoons”—large ponds used to store manure that can overflow and pollute waters.
In an investigation last year, the EPA criticized Iowa regulators for not having a handle on which operations required permits and monitoring, and for an inconsistent record on enforcement and fines for violations.
“It’s plain as a pikestaff the state needs to do a better job,” said Karl Brooks, who heads the EPA’s regional office covering Iowa. Mr. Brooks said the state has cooperated with the federal agency, and he would like to see officials sign the proposed agreement as soon as possible.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which oversees livestock regulation in the state, is still analyzing which livestock and poultry operations should be subject to inspections before signing a final accord, a spokesman said this week.
The department is facing pushback from producer groups, including the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes the EPA’s proposal because it would require state officials to review many smaller operations, which the bureau says aren’t subject to federal rules. And if the inspections end up forcing more operators to get federal permits governing manure management, some would struggle to stay in business because of the additional costs, said Christina Gruenhagen, government-relations counsel for the farm bureau.
For 71-year-old Gene Ver Steeg, who raises about 20,000 pigs a year at four facilities in northwest Iowa, the idea seems like a waste of money. He and other farmers said they are better able today to keep manure out of the waterways because hogs are kept in enclosed buildings and manure is collected in special pits.
“It’s not needed,” Mr. Ver Steeg said. “But I don’t fear it, because we have nothing to hide.”
To comply with the EPA’s proposal, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources told Republican Gov. Terry Branstad that it would need extra employees, noting it had 13 fewer field inspectors today than in 2007. The governor in his proposed budget requested funding for five new employees.
A spokesman for the governor said the department has “found efficiencies and will be able to inspect every structure as required.” He added the state is working with the EPA “to ensure common-sense regulations that are not overly burdensome to Iowans.”
Des Moines Water Works, the water supplier in Iowa’s largest city, is watching the discussions between EPA and state officials closely. Chief Executive William Stowe said an algae problem last summer fueled by runoff from livestock operations and other sources forced it to temporarily stop using water from the Raccoon River, one of its main sources of drinking water.
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A version of this article appeared March 15, 2013, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Livestock Waste Lands Iowa in Hot Water.