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CAFO concerns in environmentally sensitive areas

Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media

Thanks to tight competition, hog farmers are feeling a push to expand or get out of the business. That means indoor confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are growing, even in the most environmentally sensitive areas.

The hog industry’s impact on the water supply is worrying many residents of northeast Iowa’s Winneshiek County, near Decorah.

Winneshiek County is renowned for its cold water trout streams. Iowa Fisheries biologist Bill Kalieshek, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says it is part of a swath of the Midwest that includes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois called the “Driftless” region, and its limestone geology makes its groundwater especially vulnerable.

“Surface flow can percolate into the limestone – it goes down into the groundwater,” Kalishek said. “It then remerges as springs. You don’t have this in the rest of the state because you don’t have this really shallow limestone layer right underneath the soil.”

This kind of topography is more environmentally sensitive to manure spills from mismanaged CAFOs. Spills and accidents aren’t common, but happen every year.

“Something goes wrong in a system and there’s a catastrophic failure of the way they handle manure in the system and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure can get put into a stream,” Kalishek said.

It’s because of that possibility that people in Winneshiek County were upset when ag-company Millennium announced it would expand its operation to house more than 4,000 hogs. That would make it a fairly large CAFO – the Iowa Pork Producers say an average facility houses 2,400 hogs.

The Winneshiek County board of supervisors tried to block the expansion permit. Winneshiek County Supervisor Dean Thompson brought their concern to the state’s Environmental Protection Commission.

“We felt that given the location of that animal feeding operation near Bear Creek watershed and given the public input, it was part of our responsibility to pursue the question and ask why it should be expanded,” Thompson said.

Millennium can expand because the company is doing nothing to violate Iowa law. Eldon McAfee, a lawyer who represents the company, says Millennium plans to put extra safeguards in place in this kind of topography, as required by Iowa law.

“From this type of confinement operation, Iowa law just says no discharge, period,” McAfee said. “Nothing gets away, it has to be designed and operated that way.”

The stored manure has an added bonus for farmers in the area. Chuck Gipp, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and a Decorah resident, grew up on a nearby dairy farm and says technology has improved immensely since he was young. Manure used to just run off into the streams; now the manure is stored and benefits neighboring farms.

“With confinements you capture that liquid,” Gipp said. “Handled properly it can be good soil nutrient and it’s better than commercial fertilizer.”

Ultimately, the Environmental Protection Board gave the company the green light to expand. Millennium Agriculture isn’t wasting anytime; it plans to break ground soon. But that potential from a catastrophic spill still concerns many residents in Decorah.

“It affects our drinking water. It affects everything we do,” said Tom Murray, who retired to northeast Iowa to get away from Chicago. “Water is everything to us. For life.”

That explains why in Decorah and other communities co-existing with CAFOs, water is under constant scrutiny. 

Video dispatch

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources conducts regular surveys of the trout population in northeast Iowa waterways.

Check out reporter Clay Masters’ inside look at how regulators get a better understanding of the fish.

Trout Survey in Iowa's 'Driftless Region' from Clayton Masters on Vimeo.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR
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