When it comes to CAFOs, try, try again

posted by Michael Schmidt on Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Supreme Beef CAFO lot

Last fall, I wrote about the problems with Supreme Beef, a concentrated animal feeding operation near an Outstanding Iowa Water (and cold-water trout stream). The Iowa DNR took the unusual step of not fully approving the facility’s original plan for 11,600 head of cattle. But Supreme Beef is back – and it exemplifies the problems with Iowa’s regulatory structure for CAFOs. 

Supreme Beef submitted a Nutrient Management Plan to DNR last summer, which was supposed to assure DNR that the facility’s manure disposal will not cause water pollution. Based on comments from concerned citizens, DNR was forced to acknowledge the opposite: many of the fields Supreme Beef proposed to use would not be suitable for the manure because the information and calculations in the plan had not been accurate. 

Based on a review of DNR’s public records, DNR and Supreme Beef scrambled to come up with a solution in the 60-day window required for a DNR decision.  

Supreme Beef’s response? Try again. 

Cattle feedlotSupreme Beef submitted a revised plan that excluded the fields that already had too much nitrogen and phosphorus to absorb more from the manure. The result was a DNR approval on October 5, 2020, of 2,700 head of cattle. But Supreme Beef still had a facility designed for the larger size, including the 38-million gallon manure basin. They were stuck with the smaller capacity due to DNR’s limited approval. 

Supreme Beef’s response? Try again. 

In February, Supreme Beef submitted a new plan with new fields. This plan still had deficiencies: it proposed to overapply manure, made unfounded assumptions of manure nutrient content, and  did not list conservation practices required by rule. DNR held a meeting in which concerned citizens again provided comments and IEC made a statement explaining why the plan should be disapproved. And then DNR approved the plan. 

DNR considered public comments from 100 people, who highlighted a range of deficiencies in the application. DNR decided to disapprove only two of the 45 fields where Supreme Beef proposed to apply manure. Those fields did not force DNR to disapprove the plan because the application proposed extra fields – providing some assurance of approval even if there were inaccuracies in the application. DNR also took Supreme Beef at its word that the concentration of nutrients in the manure would be substantially different from concentrations in DNR and university guidance.  DNR declined to use its discretion to disapprove the plan, despite a rule expressly allowing DNR to deny projects that pose a high environmental risk. 

DNR’s approval of the plan encapsulates why Iowa’s CAFO regulations are inadequate. In terms of water quality, which is what DNR is supposed to evaluate, the Supreme Beef site is close to the worst place in Iowa to site an open feedlot. Water from the nearby fields flows to Bloody Run Creek, which is designated an Outstanding Iowa Water for its high water quality. Bloody Run Creek is also a unique cold-water trout stream. It is in porous karst topography, which rapidly transports water from surface soils to shallow groundwater aquifers. There is a sinkhole less than 1,000 feet away from the facility. 

Dunning Spring DecorahIt is also in the Driftless area of northeast Iowa, which is known for its beauty, outdoor recreation, and tourism. If an enormous feedlot can be approved here,  with some of the most vulnerable natural conditions in the state, what would it take for DNR to disapprove a facility?  

At a more detailed level, there
are many problems with the approval and oversight of feedlots in the state. State law places unreasonable limits on DNR’s authority in favor of allowing livestock operations to expand unabated, and DNR itself does not always use its legal and technical tools to protect water quality. The result has been obscene and worsening nitrate pollution of Iowa’s surface waters. 

Fixing this imbalanced and inequitable system is challenging not only because of its complexities, but because of strong industry influence that has driven this regulatory scheme from the outset. Tackling it requires persistence, resources, and collaboration. IEC will continue to pursue the most viable avenues for addressing CAFO pollution in our state. 

  1. cafos
  2. clean water
  3. dnr
  4. karst
  5. nitrate pollution
  6. phosphorus pollution
  7. water quality

About The Author

Michael Schmidt returned to Iowa and joined the Council in 2019. He most recently worked as a staff attorney for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he focused on clean water and mining issues through enforcement, permitting, and rulemaking actions. He previously worked in the water pro ... read more