Heated battle over trout stream and planned cattle operation lands in court

By: - September 23, 2021 4:49 pm

Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club of Iowa)

The Sierra Club of Iowa is suing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Supreme Beef over a proposed a feedlot set to house 11,600 head of cattle.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Iowa District Court for Clayton County, alleges that Supreme Beef’s proposed new concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, in Clayton County uses a nutrient management plan based on incorrect data and miscalculations.

The Sierra Club says because the DNR has refused to reconsider its decision approving the operation, even after the issues related to the data were brought to the agency’s attention, it is now forced to take the agency to court.

“In spite of numerous comments from over 100 people and groups, the DNR blatantly violated its own rules and Iowa law when approving the nutrient management plan,” said Wally Taylor, legal counsel for Sierra Club of Iowa. “The DNR failed to protect Iowa’s water. That’s their job. We need to set a strong precedent that we expect the DNR to do its job.”

The planned Clayton County operation has been the source of considerable controversy. It would be one of the largest animal feeding operations in Iowa, and would be sited near Bloody Run Creek, a trout stream that is clean enough the state has declared it one of just 35 outstanding waterways in the state – a designation that is supposed to result in extra protection.

The DNR, however, now stands accused of bowing to political pressure in approving Supreme Beef’s nutrient management plan.

Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, contacted the DNR on behalf of Supreme Beef, email records show. One of the company’s principals, Jared Walz, is married to Zumbach’s daughter, Chelsea. Also, Becky Sexton of Twin Lakes Environmental Services wrote to a DNR field office staffer on behalf of Supreme Beef during the approval process. Sexton is married to Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, and the two founded Twin Lakes. Rep. Sexton is on the House environmental protection and agriculture committees.

“Bloody Run Creek is a designated ‘Outstanding Iowa Water,’” said Steve Veysey, an organizer with the Committee to Save Bloody Run. He said Iowa has laws about siting manure lagoons in the sort of terrain that’s at the CAFO site. “DNR approved it anyway. I, for one, would like to know why.”

In order to operate, Supreme Beef was required to develop a DNR-approved nutrient management plan showing that manure from the operation would be applied to crop fields at a level that would avoid runoff into streams and rivers.

The Sierra Club of Iowa submitted comments to the DNR challenging Supreme Beef’s plan, arguing that it relied on flawed data and incorrectly calculated the amount of manure that could be applied to crop fields.

Among the many alleged miscalculations: The Sierra Club claims Supreme Beef so underestimated the amount of manure the operation will produce that there are 1.3 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus that are “unaccounted for.” The club also alleges that 98% of the planned manure fields are on highly erodible land, and that manure should not be applied on sloping fields with no soil erosion control practices in place.

The DNR approved Supreme Beef’s nutrient management plan in early April. In the court petition filed Thursday, lawyers for the Sierra Club argue that is incumbent on the state agency to properly enforce regulations related to environmental hazards from animal feeding operations. “Unfortunately, IDNR often shirks its duty,” the petition states. “This case is a tragic example.”

According to the Sierra Club, there were only five animal feeding operations in Clayton County in 1990, and today there 116, with a total of more than 100,000 animals.

The DNR and Supreme Beef have yet to file a response to the lawsuit.

The Sierra Club of Iowa is the largest environmental non-profit in the state, and endorses political candidates, engages in lobbying works with volunteers on issues affecting the environment.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.