Press Release

Environmental Groups Petition for New Rules to Protect Drinking Water from CAFO Pollution

ELPC and IEC Call for Changes to Protect Drinking Water from Pollution

DES MOINES — The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law & Policy Center have filed a petition for rulemaking with Iowa’s Environmental Protection Commission to protect drinking water, groundwater, and karst terrain from pollution. The rules would restrict development of large animal feeding operations in sensitive landscapes.

The petition argues that to protect Iowa’s drinking water, the Commission must adopt rules requiring installation of pollution monitoring systems, consideration of unique or special environmental factors in feedlot approvals, and stricter requirements for the approval of new construction.

“Our current regulations for CAFO construction are not up to the task of protecting Iowans, as evidenced by the recent approval of a massive feedlot in sensitive karst terrain,” said Michael Schmidt, IEC Staff Attorney. “Groundwater can easily be contaminated in karst regions, and our current rules do not protect it. The Environmental Protection Commission needs to start living up to its name and protecting the environment and – in cases such as this – the health of the public.”

The number of animal feeding operations in Iowa has grown significantly since 1990. A Department of Natural Resources (DNR) database lists more than 12,000 active feedlots. The animals in those feedlots produce as much manure as 134 million people, which can pollute drinking water sources with nitrate and phosphorus.

“Every Iowan deserves safe drinking water. It shouldn’t be discretionary. The proposed rules will ensure that DNR takes steps to protect drinking water when evaluating future proposed CAFOs,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Nitrate contamination in drinking water can cause blue-baby syndrome, birth defects, bladder cancer, thyroid cancer and other cancers. Excess nitrate and phosphorus promote the growth of cyanobacterial algal blooms producing toxins that can cause liver damage, neurotoxicity, gastrointestinal problems, and various flu-like reactions.

The expansion of feedlots across the state has also led to new feedlots in the karst region of  Northeast Iowa, where surface water and groundwater mix more easily than other areas, due to the fractured and porous limestone below the soil rather than the bedrock found in other areas in Iowa. Many Iowans in this region in Northeast Iowa rely on private wells to supply their drinking water. IEC released a report in 2019 finding that many private wells have high concentrations of nitrate and bacteria.

“The Supreme Beef facility exemplifies the inadequate protections: the DNR should not have approved the facility,” said Alicia Vasto, Water Program Associate Director at IEC. “It was the wrong place to build the facility and it puts Iowa’s drinking and recreational waters at risk.”

“The EPC and DNR have been derelict in their duty to protect Iowans from pollution,” said Ingrid Gronstal, Water Program Director for IEC. “Allowing the unfettered growth of animal feeding operations in sensitive areas shows that the state’s regulatory approach to livestock favors industry expansion over environmental protection, public health, and public rights. There must be a re-balancing of public and private interests in Iowa’s natural resources, and the changes requested in this petition are a good first step.”

The Environmental Protection Commission is responsible for rulemaking that applies to the Department of Natural Resources, which regulates feedlots in the state. It rejected a petition filed by IEC and partners earlier this year to overturn approval of the Supreme Beef feedlot.

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