DES MOINES, Iowa — Farmers and other rural residents told the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Tuesday that the countryside is being inundated with smelly hog farms that spill manure tainting once clean rivers, streams, and lakes.
The grass-roots environmental group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement organized the large turnout to the commission's monthly meeting.
Iowa CCI has been pressuring the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the commission, which oversees the agency, to increase inspections of large-scale livestock farms and assess more severe penalties when spills occur.
Clear Lake farmer Chris Peterson said Iowa's reputation has been damaged by the perception that the water is polluted by hog manure.
"To me it's totally embarrassing, unacceptable and inexcusable," he said. "It's not becoming my Iowa anymore where I grew up. With all due respect you people need to stand up and do your jobs."
Speakers called on commissioners to require the DNR to begin issuing permits under the federal Clean Water Act. They also called for increased fines and regulations that would shut down farms with repeated spills.
Ron Gibson of Center Point said he's fighting a proposed hog farm project a mile upwind from his home. He's concerned about manure making its way into groundwater and spreading antibiotic resistant diseases that many believe are caused by hog confinement facilities in which hogs are fed antibiotics to stay healthy.
"The hog industry is legal but it's not moral," he said. "To the governor, the DNR, the EPC, and the Legislature; shame on you."
Jim Walters, a retired Iowa farmer living near Iowa City, said the entire issue boils down to accountability.
"The reason we have water problems is because we don't have accountability," he said. "No one in this chain of water quality issues is being held accountable."
He said if the state's elected officials do not hold the DNR and the governor-appointed 9-member commission accountable, "come election day we'll be working awfully hard to hold them accountable as well."
The current commission is made up of appointees of Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican seeking re-election this year.
Other speakers criticized the makeup of the commission which includes five members who are involved in the large-scale farming industry.
"It's like we're asking you too much to do your job," said Joe Fagan of Des Moines. "Were asking that you rise above your financial connections and represent the state and not your own checkbook."
Iowa DNR Director Chuck Gipp said that criticism is unfair. He said the commission needs a diversity of viewpoints including individuals who have real-life agriculture experience.
"We get complaints from livestock producers that turn in others because they don't want a bad operation to cause the regulations to be worse on them," Gipp said. "A lot of what we do is deal with people who call into the department and we in turn go out and investigate those complaints."
He said some of the facts presented by Iowa CCI were incorrect including the number of spills last year, cited as 76 by many of the speakers at the meeting. That figure includes 25 air quality violations that were not manure spills, said Bill Ehm, administrator of the DNR's Environmental Protection Division.
Gipp said criticism that Iowa is near the top of states with polluted waterways also is an exaggeration.
"We're right in the middle of the number of impaired waterways," he said. "Should we be satisfied with that? Absolutely not."
Gipp said the state is carrying out inspections according to policies agreed to by the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups. The DNR received $700,000 from the Legislature last year to hire an additional seven inspectors. The new inspectors have been hired and are being trained, he said.
The call for the state to force farms to obtain Clean Water Act permits is based on a misunderstanding that permits would prohibit the release of manure. The permits would allow farms to release manure during severe weather events including heavy rain, Gipp said.