Proposed CAFO bill not good change

The issue of regulating confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can be a contentious topic, as events in Bartholomew County showed.

After two years of committee work, public meetings and passionate debates about how stringent local regulations should be, Bartholomew County’s three commissioners last year unanimously approved an ordinance creating new setbacks for confined animal feeding operations.

Many residents expressed support for more restrictive setbacks that were recommended in a minority report issued by the Bartholomew County CFO/CAFO Regulation Study Committee, because of the possible impact on the environment and property values. The setbacks approved by the commissioners, which are less restrictive, originated from a majority of the study committee members.

One change the county did not make is allowing any farmer wishing to start a confined feeding operation to receive approval simply by receiving a permit. Farmers still must seek approval from the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals, which provides public transparency and opportunity for public comment.

Legislation currently being discussed in the Indiana Legislature would impact the decisions made locally and weaken state regulations and public notification regarding CAFOs, opponents say.

State Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, authored House Bill 1494, which would eliminate the requirement that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) grant approval of a proposed CAFO before construction or operation. Instead, a person must obtain a permit from IDEM before constructing or operating a confined feeding operation, and for a permit holder to obtain a new permit or permit amendment from IDEM before constructing or expanding a manure-storage facility.

The bill applies to CAFOs of at least 300 cattle, 600 swine or sheep, 30,000 fowl or 500 horses. It passed in an amended version by the Environmental Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives and now will be heard on the House floor. Wolkins said that language opponents claimed — incorrectly, in his opinion — about cutting the public out of the permitting process was modified.

CAFOs are large operations that evoke a range of opinions about how beneficial or harmful they are. State or local laws that govern them must be specific and clearly understood by people who would be affected — operators as well as neighbors.

Bartholomew County considered the requirement of BZA approval an important step in the approval process, and kept that requirement. Requirements in other counties differ, but they reflect the desire of residents and local officials about how they think CAFOs should be regulated.

Every county is different in what it values as important to its economy and way of life. It makes most sense then for local communities to have the greatest control in setting regulations for CAFOs.

If House Bill 1494 would weaken local control, that would be unfortunate. With continued confusion and disagreement about the bill,  letting it die in the session and looking at it again in a summer study would be the most prudent steps to take.