The Environmental Protection Commission denies petition to strengthen the factory farm permitting process 

Videography courtesy Rodger Routh

Des Moines, IA – Today at its monthly meeting, the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) voted before a packed crowd to deny a rulemaking petition filed by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch to strengthen the master matrix – a tool in the factory farm permitting process. At the meeting, the commission received over 1,500 comments in support of the petition and nearly 100 Iowans showed up to tell the nine commissioners to strengthen the fifteen-year-old scoring system.

“I feel betrayed by the Environmental Protection Commission for voting against the people of Iowa today and deciding to do nothing to improve the factory farm permitting process,” said Rosie Partridge, CCI member from Sac County. “It is clear that the DNR and the EPC lack the political will to stand up to the factory farm industry and make these much-needed improvements for thousands of Iowans. Shame on them!”

Despite 17% of Iowa counties sending Letters of Support for the petition and/or passing resolutions that call for more protections from the factory farm industry, none of the eight commissioners present today voted to move forward with the rulemaking petition.

The denial was based on a recommendation by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency overseen by the EPC. Rather than responding comprehensively to the detailed petition, the DNR cherry-picked just a few proposals to justify denying the entire petition outright – even though the department could have given its own revisions and recommendations on the proposal.

“This vote against strengthening the master matrix is a vote for increasing Big Ag’s profits at the expense of Iowans’ health and environment. The DNR clearly lacks the political will to fix its broken regulations, but we will continue to fight for commonsense regulations to hold factory farms accountable and protect rural communities,” said Tarah Heinzen, Staff Attorney at Food & Water Watch.

The master matrix is supposed to provide a comprehensive review of environmental and community risks, allowing counties to recommend denial of facilities that will have harmful impacts. But the matrix developed by the DNR has proven so easy to pass that it has amounted to little more than a rubber stamp: Applicants only need to satisfy enough of the listed criteria to obtain 50 percent of the available points – an “F” by most standards. DNR records show that only 2.2 percent of applications have been denied since the master matrix was created in 2002.

The petition asked for:

  • A higher minimum passing score, requiring applicants to earn more points to obtain a permit;
  • A one-time enrollment for counties, rather than the current burdensome requirement for counties to readopt the master matrix every single year;
  • Revisions to the point structure to incentivize practices that prevent or mitigate pollution;
  • New criteria that consider more environmental factors, such as unique topography and existing water pollution impairments;
  • Elimination of criteria that do not provide meaningful environmental or community benefits; and
  • Increased separation distances from things like schools, homes, public use areas, wells, etc.

“My private well is a perfect example of why we need to strengthen the master matrix. In just three years, my well’s nitrate level has risen from 8 parts per million to 12, and this summer it tested at 19, almost double the federal safe drinking water standard,” said Janis Elliott, CCI member from Warren County. “Over 300,000 Iowans rely on private wells. How many of us are drinking poison?”

Meeting attendees vowed to continue pressuring the EPC, DNR, Governor Reynolds, and the Iowa Legislature to crack down on the factory farm industry and finally address Iowa’s growing water crisis. Following the EPC meeting, CCI members delivered letters to Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, and Governor Reynolds putting them on notice to take action during the 2018 legislative session.

“We won’t stop fighting the corporate cronyism that pollutes Iowa’s water. Today was only the beginning,” said Nick Schutt, farmer and CCI member from Hardin County. “To fix the problem, we need to hold our elected officials accountable and make sure they stand with the people of Iowa. Governor Reynolds and Iowa legislators, we are putting you on notice. We will see you in January!”

The citizen letters demanded:

  • a moratorium on new and expanding factory farm construction;
  • local control over the siting of factory farms;
  • mandatory – not voluntary – regulations to clean up our water;
  • tough enforcement of existing regulations; and
  • a plan to make industrial ag pay to clean up the $5 billion pollution problem it has created.

“It’s clear – the master matrix is broken. In the face of more inaction by Iowa DNR, it is the duty of Iowa’s elected officials to stand with everyday people,” the letters read. “We need a farm and food system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and our environment  – not just industrial ag’s bottom line.”

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is a statewide, grassroots people’s action group that uses community organizing to win public policy that puts communities before corporations and people before profits, politics and polluters. CCI has been fighting to put people first for over 40 years. Follow us on Twitter at @iowacci

Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.


Learn more

Join the Fight!

  • Ready to take action? Contact us to learn how to get actively involved in this fight.
  • Join as an Iowa CCI member
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by Mark A. Kuhn, courtesy The Des Moines Register

As one of 12 legislators who drafted the bill in 2002 that created the Master Matrix, a current member of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors tasked with reviewing Master Matrix applications, and a lifelong Iowa farmer, I have a unique perspective on the Master Matrix, its failings and how it could be improved.

I support the recent petition presented by the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch because it is needed to restore balance to a system that has failed to adequately protect the rights of all Iowans, and certain precious natural resources unique to different counties, such as Karst topography in northeast Iowa.

TAKE ACTION! Add your name to the list of Iowans that demand stronger factory farm rules.

The Master Matrix is a scoring system that awards points for livestock producers who adopt additional practices greater than the minimum required by state law. Points are awarded for increasing the minimum separated distances between concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and churches, residences, public-use areas, and bodies of water. More restrictive manure management practices score additional points. The Master Matrix has a total of 44 questions that could result in a perfect score of 880 points, but only 440 points are required to get a passing grade.

The Department of Natural Resources’ analysis of the Master Matrix shows that certain questions pertaining to separated distances are easy to score points on and nearly every application does. Points are also awarded for practices, such as concrete manure storage structures, that are the industry standard. Other questions requiring air-quality monitoring, the installation of filters to reduce odors, demonstrating community support, implementing a worker safety and protection plan, or adopting an approved comprehensive nutrient management plan are almost never answered.

Once an applicant achieves the minimum required points, they are not required to answer any further questions. It is a pass-fail test that has failed Iowans. It is out of date and needs to be changed.

The process also puts unreasonable time restrictions on counties. Once an application is received, a county has only 30 days to review the application for accuracy, call for a public hearing by publishing notice in official county newspapers, conduct the hearing, and make a recommendation to the DNR whether to approve the application or not. If the county doesn’t deny the permit, the DNR will approve it without any review.

To make matters worse, neither the applicant nor the company responsible for preparing the application is required to attend the public hearing to answer questions about the proposed CAFO. This happened twice recently in Floyd County, leading to misinformation and distrust between livestock producers and their neighbors.

It’s no wonder that Floyd County is one of 13 Iowa counties that passed resolutions or sent letters to leaders of the Legislature and former Gov. Branstad, asking them to strengthen the Master Matrix. But those efforts at the local level fell on deaf ears in Des Moines. The Legislature and Branstad did nothing.

A bill by Sen. David Johnson (I-Ocheyedan), calling for a review of the Master Matrix by the advisory committee that originally established it was never given a hearing in the Senate Ag committee. Another bill authored by Rep. Mike Sexton (R-Rockwell City) that required the DNR to include additional water-quality criteria in the Master Matrix suffered the same fate in the House Ag committee.

However, the Legislature did see fit to approve a nuisance lawsuit protection bill for CAFO owners that limits monetary damages and lawsuits to one per lifetime. This bill was pushed by the livestock industry in retaliation to Iowans who are forced to resort to litigation because they can no longer enjoy their own property.

As a lifelong farmer, I know the value that Iowa livestock producers add to the corn and soybeans I grow. With only 2 percent of all Master Matrix applications ever denied by the DNR since the law was created in 2002, I also know the current system is weighted heavily in favor of the livestock industry.

The livestock industry and the agri-business lobby have been successful for decades in dividing Iowans on this issue by labeling any legislator who supports change as being opposed to modern agriculture and the next generation of young farmers, while ignoring the real issue: Iowans have the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and enjoy their quality of life.

This issue is too important to Iowa’s future to be reduced to the politics of division. It is not a rural vs. urban issue. It is a neighbor vs. neighbor issue. There are plenty of rural residents and farmers just like me who support Iowa’s livestock industry, but object to a confinement barn with thousands of squealing hogs or hundreds of thousands of chickens to be built 1,875 feet from their residence, and allow the untreated waste from those animals to be spread immediately adjacent to their homes and farmsteads.

That’s why I support the petition for changes to the Master Matrix. It doesn’t call for local control of siting or a moratorium on new construction. It works within the existing system to balance the scale of justice for all Iowans.

MARK A. KUHN is the owner/operator of the Kuhn family farm, a member of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors (1992-98 and 2011-present), and a former Democratic state representative (1999-2010).


TAKE ACTION! Add your name to the list of Iowans that demand stronger factory farm rules.

Learn more about our filing with the DNR!

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July 19, 2017.   Yesterday, we went on offense for clean water. Iowa CCI and Food & Water Watch filed a petition with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to strengthen rules on factory farms!

Click here to support the petition and demand stronger rules!

The Master Matrix – a tool used to evaluate applications for new factory farms – was created by the legislature in 2002 with the promise of giving communities a greater voice in factory farm construction and more protections from factory farm pollution. But, in its fifteen years of existence, that hasn’t happened.

Instead of working for everyday people, the Master Matrix only works for the industry.

We all know it: Iowa is in a water crisis. But, year after year, the legislature has failed to act. Iowans can’t wait any longer.

That’s why on Tuesday, we teamed up with our allies at Food & Water Watch to file a formal rulemaking petition with the DNR to finally strengthen the Master Matrix. We know it’s no substitute for local control or a moratorium, but the Master Matrix is one tool DNR can strengthen right now outside of the legislature to enact meaningful changes that will protect our communities and environment from factory farm pollution.

The DNR has 60 days to respond to our petition. During that time, we want to collect as many comments in support of this petition as possible.

Click here! Show DNR that Iowans demand stronger factory farm rules!

The petition asks for:

  • A higher minimum passing score, requiring applicants to earn more points to obtain a permit;
  • A one-time enrollment for counties, rather than the current burdensome requirement for counties to readopt the Master Matrix every single year;
  • Revisions to the point structure to incentivize practices that prevent or mitigate pollution;
  • New criteria that consider more environmental factors, such as unique topography and existing water pollution impairments;
  • Elimination of criteria that do not provide meaningful environmental or community benefits; and
  • Increased separation distances from things like schools, homes, public use areas, wells, etc.

TAKE ACTION TODAY! Click here to support strengthening the Master Matrix!

This is just one step in our clean water fight. We’ll keep pushing for mandatory – not voluntary – water protections, and a budget where Big Ag – not taxpayers – pays to clean up its pollution.

Together, we can make the changes we need for clean water and healthy communities!


Join the Fight!

  • Ready to take action? Contact us to learn how to get actively involved in this fight.
  • Join as an Iowa CCI member
  • Sign up for our email Action List
  • Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Our #cleanwaterfight to stop factory farm manure pollution has been an adventure to say the least, and what’s an adventure without some great photos?

So, we decided to embark on a Clean Water Iowa image contest! Here’s what we asked you to do:

Step 1: Print off a Clean Water Iowa image

Step 2: Pose with the image, from hanging’ out to your most creative, and take a photo!

Step 3: Submit on social media, or email it on in.

Step 4: Impress CCI staffers with your awesome photo!

We could not have done it without you: Creative, colorful, impactful, and puppies made for some fantastic images. Give the collage a view, and check the photos out in full:



Iowa’s Environmental Protection Commission passed a Clean Water Act rule that can be much stronger – the #cleanwaterfight is not over. Stay tuned!



VIDEO:  Factory Farm Outside of Riceville With History of Pollution Problems Discharges Manure Into Impaired Wapsipinicon River Again


Iowa CCI members say the DNR failed to issue permits and penalties to the facility after a similar discharge into the Wapsi last year, raising questions about the DNR’s implementation of a Clean Water Act work plan as public hearings on draft new rules begin today in Mason City

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) members released a video May 6 documenting an ongoing manure discharge into the Wapsipinicon River from Oak Grove Cattle, LLC outside of Riceville in Mitchell County.  The incident has been verified by Department of Natural Resources (DNR) field staff Trent Lambert, although the DNR failed to notify the public, and follows a similar discharge into the Wapsi River last year from the same facility.

The most recent discharge was first documented on April 8 and was ongoing at least through May 1, when the video was recorded by a next-door neighbor and Iowa CCI member.  Federal law states that operations may be fined as much as $30,000 per day for illegal manure discharges into waters of the United States.

Oak Grove Cattle, LLC is a mixed feedlot/confinement operation with approximately 1,000-head of cattle owned by David Eastman.  The manure discharge first occurred on or about April 8 after an earthen berm failed to contain manure on-site.  The DNR allowed Eastman to construct the berm after last year’s discharges and in February told Iowa CCI members the facility did not need a Clean Water Act permit because the engineering change would permanently remedy the problem.

Last year the DNR issued two Notices of Violation for discharging manure into a water of the state through a manmade conveyance, as well as for housing more than 500 cattle in confinement without having a Manure Management Plan, but failed to assess any kind of fine or monetary penalty.  The 2013 discharges began no later than April 2, 2013 and ended no earlier than May 5, 2013.

A previous discharge incident in 2009 at Oak Grove Cattle resulted in an Administrative Consent Order and a monetary fine.

Iowa CCI member and rural property owner Rita Dvorak, who raises a small herd of sheep outside of Riceville with her husband Lee, has been battling manure runoff from Oak Grove Cattle for years, and has spent thousands of dollars to clean up factory farm manure out of her family’s farm pond and adjacent property.

“This is all foam, this is the runoff,” Dvorak says at the beginning of the May 1 video, which begins at the bank of the Wapsi River before moving upstream to the source of the runoff.

“You can see in the background there where it’s coming out of the berm…that’s the beginning of the breach, you can see where it’s blown out,” Dvorak continues in the video as she records a mix of water and manure running off the factory farm property and into a gully that runs into the Wapsi River.  The feedlot and confinement buildings are both visible in the background near the end of the video clip.

DNR public hearings on draft new Clean Water Act permitting rules that Iowa CCI members have criticized as weak begin May 6 in Mason City and continue every day, minus the weekends, through May 13 in Spencer, Carroll, Des Moines, Calmar, and Ainsworth.  Rita Dvorak will testify at the May 12 hearing in Calmar.

There have been more than 728 documented manure spills since 1996, including at least five in April of this year. Iowa currently has at least 630 polluted waterways.

Factory farm expansion is also up, with more than 900 of the state’s 8,500 factory farms being built since January 1, 2012.   Iowa’s factory farms produce nearly 10 billion gallons of toxic manure every year.

Iowa CCI is a statewide, grassroots people’s action group that uses community organizing to win public policy that puts communities before corporations and people before profits, politics, and polluters.   

Twenty Iowa-based community, environmental, farm, and labor organizations join coalition sign-on letter calling on EPA/DNR to sign a strong Clean Water Act work plan

Demonstration of broad-based, deeply-rooted support escalates pressure on state and federal government to finally hold factory farm polluters accountable for Clean Water Act violations

Twenty Iowa-based community, environmental, farm, and labor organizations collectively representing tens of thousands of Iowans have joined a sign-on letter circulated by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa Sierra Club, and the Environmental Integrity Project that calls on Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks and Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp to sign a strong work plan guaranteeing on-site inspections for the largest 8,000 factory farms in Iowa, and permits for every polluter.

The sign-on letter may be read here.

The strongly worded sign-on letter was also carbon-copied to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and specifically addresses several of the major inspection and permitting issues currently being debated in the EPA/DNR negotiations.

“This letter demonstrates that Iowans will not stand for any more compromises or concessions with corporate ag,” said Vern Tigges, an independent family farmer and longtime CCI member from Carroll.  “We demand justice – and a strong work plan that ends Iowa’s water quality crisis by cracking down on factory farm pollution.”

The letter was drafted by Iowa CCI, the Iowa Sierra Club, and the Environmental Integrity Project but 17 other organizations have also signed it.

Additional groups representing agriculture and farming interests include the Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors, and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.

Organizations representing environmental interests include Des Moines Water Works, Environment Iowa, Food and Water Watch, the Iowa Environmental Council, and the Raccoon River Watershed Association.

Two labor unions also joined the clean water sign-on letter – the Communication Workers of America Iowa State Council and the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Several community-based groups also signed-on to the letter, including the Allamakee County Protectors, Iowa Citizen Action Network, Poweshiek Community Action to Restore Environmental Stewardship, and Progressive Action for the Common Good.

The policy organization Iowa Public Interest Research Group and the faith-based group Kitchen Table Ministries round out the organizational sign-ons.

The organizational sign-on letter reads in part:

The factory farm lobby has a financial stake in the outcome of this process and the agencies responsible for safeguarding Iowa’s waters cannot permit it to weaken the work plan by categorically exempting thousands of factory farms from inspection and permit requirements. 

The outcome of this process will affect the ability of all Iowans to use and enjoy our rivers, lakes, and streams for decades to come, and we demand EPA and DNR deliver a strong work plan without further delay.

The Iowa DNR and U.S. EPA have been negotiating a work plan agreement to bring the state of Iowa into compliance with the Clean Water Act after EPA released a scathing report on July 12, 2012 finding the DNR’s factory farm enforcement program does not meet federal requirements.  The July 12, 2012 EPA Report said DNR:

  • Has failed to issue permits to factory farms when required,
  • Does not have an adequate factory farm inspection program,
  • Frequently fails to act in response to manure spills and other environmental violations,
  • Does not assess adequate fines and penalties when violations occur.

The EPA intervention was a response to a 2007 de-delegation petition filed by Iowa CCI members, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Iowa Sierra Club.  The petition called on EPA to strip the Iowa DNR of its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act for its failure to enforce federal law against factory farm polluters.

Iowa’s water quality has never been worse than now, with 628 polluted bodies of water, and manure and other fertilizer runoff so high that Des Moines Water Works ran the world’s most expensive nitrate removal system for nearly 90 days this spring and summer, costing 500,000 ratepayers in Central Iowa nearly $900,000.