State panel stands by controversial livestock pollution scoring system

Adam Mason, state policy director for nonprofit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, speaks in favor of a moratorium on livestock confinement construction at a Statehouse rally on Jan. 23. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A governor-appointed panel charged with protecting Iowans from health-threatening pollution has decided not to push for changes in livestock rules. Critics say the rules are a “joke” and don’t protect the public.

A majority of members of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission said they don’t want to ask for changes in the scorecard used by many county officials to review proposed livestock confinement projects. The comments were part of an informal discussion of a report to be submitted to Gov. Kim Reynolds and state lawmakers.

Environmentalists have pushed for years for changes in the so-called master matrix. They say the scorecard, intended to promote designs that would limit both pollution and nuisances from the operations, is too lenient.

“The only way I can compare it to a middle-school test is if you let the middle-schooler write the test and grade it themselves,” said Adam Mason, state policy director for the Des Moines-based nonprofit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Essentially, the matrix is a joke.”

“It is a hot issue, especially in rural communities,” Mason said. “When they want to oppose a factory farm proposal, they see how broken the system is.”

The matrix applies to confinements that would hold the equivalent of at least 2,500 finishing hogs. Mason said that leads to a lot of applicants for facilities with 2,499 hogs. If the county supervisors adopt the system, producers must submit a scorecard assessing their efforts to limit pollution that would affect neighbors.

Lawmakers created the matrix to give local elected officials a role in reviewing livestock confinement applications. The Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that the state, not local governments, decides where the confinements will go.

County boards of supervisors regularly hear from property owners complaining of odors and harmful emissions from the confinements.

The Iowa State Association of Counties in recent months has lobbied for a review of the master matrix. GOP lawmakers who control the majority in Legislature have declined while also turning away proposals to call a moratorium on livestock confinement construction.

Iowa is the nation’s top hog producer. One of the large, newer entrants to that industry, North Carolina, called a moratorium on hog confinement construction in 1997. Later, the state installed tougher standards.

Most of Iowa’s environmental protection commissioners this week said they think the matrix works as it is. After each commissioner spoke, Jerah Sheets of the DNR staff said a majority appeared to be opposed to asking for a master matrix review.

Commissioners agreed informally to omit the topic from this year’s report to lawmakers and the governor, with little discussion. 

Commissioner Lisa Gochenour of Council Bluffs said she would support a debate on changing the master matrix. “I would think the master matrix should be looked at but that’s probably because we just had a giant chicken farm go in very close to my house.,” Gochenour told her commission colleagues. “So It’s more personal.”

In 2017, CCI filed a petition with the commission asking for a range of changes. Among other things, the group wanted confinement developers to have to score more than 440 points, currently required out of  880 possible points to get a permit. CCI said it considered the 50% score an “F.” And the group wanted all questions on the applications answered, not just the ones confinement owners decided to answer to put together enough points.

The commission unanimously rejected the petition. In its report to state lawmakers and the governor then, the commission said the changes the petition requested would have shut down new construction. Commissioners said that would violate state law, which requires the matrix system “to feasibly provide for a satisfactory rating.”

The commission added in 2017 that “the current matrix was established with broad stakeholder input and discussion.”

Mason said 26 counties in recent years have acknowledged problems with the system, and some have requested a moratorium on confinement construction. 

Eldon McAfee, lawyer for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said the 2002 law that created the matrix has given hog producers consistent rules that led many to maximize the distance between confinement buildings and neighbors’ homes. All but 10 of Iowa’s 99 counties have adopted the matrix system.

“It has resulted in better sites for our industry,” McAfee said. “Even the producers who were against it at first are used to it now.”