Environmentalists net court wins against coal plants and cattle feedlot

By: - May 1, 2023 4:00 pm

Recent court rulings nullified decisions by the Iowa Utilities Board and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. (Photo illustration via Canva)

State agencies did not properly evaluate plans related to coal plant electricity production and a controversial animal confinement that have the potential to pollute the air in the state and a cherished trout stream in northeast Iowa, according to recent court rulings.

Those separate rulings were, at least, temporary wins for environmental groups that seek to shift the state’s electricity production to renewable sources and to protect Bloody Run Creek.

In one case, decided by the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday, justices said the Iowa Utilities Board must take into consideration the evidence supplied by environmental groups in its decision to approve MidAmerican’s biennial plan and budget to manage its emissions cost-effectively.

The board is tasked with overseeing electric utilities in the state because they operate as monopolies.

At issue is a 2020 request for MidAmerican to increase electric rates to pay for operations and maintenance expenditures at four coal-powered plants.

Expert testimony provided by the environmental groups said MidAmerican should not be able to recoup the costs associated with two of the plants because the operation of them was not cost-effective.

One expert testified that the plants should be retired “because they operate below capacity and in an ‘uneconomic’ way,” according to the Supreme Court ruling.

The IUB approved the plan in 2021 and denied a motion to reconsider, in part, because the testimony and accompanying evidence provided by the environmental groups was “outside the scope” of the regulatory proceedings.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Sierra Club of Iowa sued, and a district court judge sided with the IUB that their evidence — “particularly the evidence regarding the retirement of coal-fueled facilities to be replaced by renewable energy” — did not need to be considered, court records show.

The Supreme Court disagreed: “All of this evidence is relevant and should have been considered by the board,” wrote Justice Christopher McDonald, who delivered the court’s unanimous decision. Justice David May was not part of the consideration or decision of the case.

The justices vacated the board’s decision to approve MidAmerican’s plans and told it to reconsider them along with the evidence from the environmental groups.

“The state Supreme Court recognized the significant implications for customers if MidAmerican can avoid scrutiny of its coal plants,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “If the utility can determine what evidence is relevant from plan filing to plan filing, coal plant retirements that could save customers money while providing greater environmental benefits would be inappropriately excluded from consideration.”

Cattle manure management

A separate ruling by a Polk County district court judge nullified a plan approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to manage the manure produced by a controversial northeast Iowa cattle feedlot.

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

At issue is one of the largest feedlots in the state that is operated by Supreme Beef in Clayton County near the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, one of the state’s premier trout streams. It also lies in a porous geological area that is more vulnerable to surface contamination.

The feedlot is permitted for 11,600 cattle, according to state records. It was initially intended to provide manure to feed an anaerobic digester that would produce natural gas, but those plans fizzled when the feedlot owners’ business partners were unable to secure funding for the project, according to court records.

The owners sued their now-former business partners in 2019 and at that time “had a large debt burden and a partially-built cattle facility without an anaerobic digester,” wrote District Judge Scott Rosenberg in his Friday ruling. “To make the facility operational, the (owners) needed to put millions of dollars into additions and remediations.”

The Sierra Club of Iowa and Trout Unlimited have worried that manure leaks from the facility — which has a 39-million-gallon manure storage basin — could wreak environmental havoc, and they argued in court that the plans to periodically remove the manure from the basin and apply it to farmland are insufficient to prevent stream pollution.

The facility’s latest nutrient management plan was approved 2021, according to state records, but it was pocked with “illogical interpretations of the statutes,” Rosenberg wrote. Most importantly, he did not think the facility’s plan had trustworthy estimates of how much manure the facility would produce and questioned the placement of the storage basin.

“It is odd to approve a manure storage system that is banned from confinement operations due to the danger of spills and leaks into the porous bedrock,” Rosenberg wrote. “To approve it for an open feedlot in the same terrain is particularly odd when the only way this type of manure handling system gets built is if the agency approves it.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.