DES MOINES - As Iowa officials near an agreement with federal authorities who are seeking tougher inspections of the state's livestock operations to prevent water pollution, activists are protesting a proposal they argue would make it easier for some farmers to avoid oversight.
Legislation proposed in the House and Senate would allow some livestock producers to close down barns and be reclassified as small operations. That would mean they no would longer need to file plans for manure disposal with the state.
Members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement protested Tuesday in the state Capitol. They argue that the measures will allow farmers to store manure in those idled barns, which could lead to water-polluting spills either when the waste is transported or while it sits in an unsupervised facility.
"What they shouldn't be allowed to do is dump it in an abandoned building," said David Goodner, a community organizer with CCI.
Iowa has roughly 8,000 livestock operations and is the leading hog-producing state in the U.S. The legislation would apply to an estimated 6,100 operations that confine livestock in roofed structures. Currently, if those producers have a certain amount of livestock, they must have a plan for disposing manure and cannot spread the waste on frozen or snow-covered ground in the winter months.
Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, said the legislation is not designed to provide regulation loopholes. He said the measure, backed by the industry group Iowa Pork Producers, is geared at farmers who want to temporarily idle part of their operation, perhaps because a child is going away to college or due to economic hardship.
Under current rules, to deactivate a barn, you must remove equipment and render the facility unusable. Seng said it's costly and complicated to shutter a barn for a brief time.
"They have to restart the whole process, get certified if it's vacant too long," Seng said.
Cody McKinley, public policy director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said they had heard from members who wanted to temporarily close part of operations.
"Our most common response is my son or daughter is going to college, without the manpower I can't operate that barn. They want to come back and farm. We just want to mothball it for now," McKinley said.
Seng said he was working on an amendment to limit the use of those vacant barns for manure, so that it was only an option in emergency situations. But Goodner called the effort "lipstick on a pig," saying CCI was opposed to any such permission.
"It's a way that they can chip away at the legs of oversight. The industry will do that from now until forever," Goodner said.
Environmental activists say their concern is manure polluting state waters. Between 2001 and 2011, there were 262 manure spills in the state that reached water, according to a 2012 report from the Iowa Environmental Council, based on data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
McKinley said state law bars farmers from polluting water.
"We continue to stand by the fact that Iowa's a zero discharge state," he said.
The debate over the measures - for which no votes have been scheduled on either chamber's floor - played out this past week as Iowa officials continue to work toward a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over toughening livestock inspections.
The EPA last July put out a report saying the state has failed to enforce the Clean Water Act. According to the report, Iowa is not properly inspecting all livestock producers and is not issuing sufficient penalties to operators not in compliance.
Under a proposed agreement from the EPA, the state would have to inspect the nearly 8,000 livestock operations in Iowa. According to the EPA report, the state currently does not know how many livestock operations need to obtain federal waste discharge permits.
The two sides have not yet reached a deal, though Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said he'd like to reach an understanding within 30 days. Karl Brooks, who heads the EPA's regional office for Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, said he was hopeful for a resolution.
"The state is a world-class producer of beef and pork and poultry. There are more hogs raised in Iowa than the next four hog-producing states. The state has an opportunity to put together a permitting system that's nationally significant," Brooks said.
Gipp said the DNR did not have a position on the barn-idling legislation, but he disagreed with CCI's interpretation.
"This would be the equivalent of putting the car in storage," Gipp said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.