One Year After “Ag-Gag”, Senator Joe Seng Again Carries (Polluted) Water For Corporate Ag

New proposal to store manure at abandoned factory farms poses serious risks to Iowa’s water quality


Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Joe Seng (D-Davenport) is “corporate ag’s go-to-guy and no friend of the environment,” Iowa CCI Action Fund members said after a controversial bill to weaken manure management regulations was rammed through a committee meeting on February 28 by the Scott County legislator.  Last year Seng was the industry hustler who pushed the “Ag Gag” bill as well as another law that exempts sow operations from construction permit requirements.

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Existing Iowa law states that a factory farm operator must level their barns, empty their pits, and fill them in with dirt or concrete before they will be considered “closed” by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  This vigorous law was passed in 2002 to protect the environment from potential contamination from old or outdated factory farms.

But the bill passed by Seng’s committee on February 28 – which was introduced as a “committee bill” just a few days before at the behest of the Iowa Pork Producers Association – would allow facilities to temporarily close without leveling the buildings or filling in the manure pits, as current law states.  A companion bill was also introduced the same day in the House.

The coordinated House and Senate response sheds a light on the politics at the statehouse, the influence of the factory farm lobby, and the sophisticated attempt by the lobby and their legislative allies like Seng and Rep.Lee Hein (R-Monticello) to introduce the controversial bill a few days before the first funnel, and then push it through subcommittee and committee votes before a full public discussion about the merits of the bill can be made.

Seng claims that his bill is designed to provide financial assistance to beginning farmers by allowing them to use existing facilities not already in use by another factory farm operator rather than having to build new facilities at a higher price.  The proposal would also allow existing operators to “mothball” facilities that they want to take off-line temporarily, but eventually use again in the future.

“Factory farms have a very short half-life when they aren’t in use, and there’s a real concern that bringing older, run down, crumbling, cracked, and degraded factory farms back on-line could pose a risk to the environment as the possibility of leaks and spills would go up dramatically,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation family farmer from Dexter and the CCI Action Fund board president.

But while the bill specifies new provisions for the “mothballing” of factory farm barns, there are no provisions in the bills which state that the manure pits underneath the buildings must also be emptied and shut down.  Industry insiders say they want operators who don’t have 12 months of storage – or whose fields aren’t ready for manure application when their pits are full – to be able to use these “mothballed” facilities for additional manure storage.

“Now we see what the true purpose of this proposal really is,” Kalbach said.  “It’s not really to help beginning farmers, it’s to allow factory farm operators who can’t manage their manure even more leeway to weasel out of their manure management plans, and that’s not right.”

“The risk of manure spills and water pollution rises significantly if we’re talking about pumping out one pit, transporting the manure to another facility, and pumping it back in there.  This is really a dangerous proposal.”

“For that matter, factory farm operators who can’t properly manage their manure under existing law should be shut down.  They should not be allowed to use somebody else’s facilities to store their manure, especially when that creates even more risks to the environment and our water quality.”

DNR officials confirmed to CCI Action Fund members that they have no intention of monitoring the transfer of manure from one facility to another under this proposal.

Iowa has more than 628 polluted waterways and has suffered more than 800 documented manure spills since 1995.  Manure spills are at their highest in the Fall when manure is being pumped from underground pits and transported to be applied on farm ground.

A 2007 study by the Iowa Policy Project stated that factory farm manure “may be the largest agricultural polluter of Iowa’s streams and lakes”.

Sixty percent of Iowans believe “we need stronger laws to stop factory farms from polluting our air and water,” according to a September 27-29 telephone poll of 572 active Iowa voters conducted by Public Policy Polling.

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