Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) and Food & Water Watch filed a petition today with the Department of Natural Resources to strengthen the master matrix - a scoring system for factory farm applications. Created fifteen years ago by the legislature, the master matrix has failed to live up to the promise of giving communities a greater voice in the siting of factory farms and protections from the pollution they create. Several Iowans testified at the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) meeting in support of the rulemaking petition.
“Iowans are dealing with a factory farm industry that is polluting our water and our air and degrading our quality of life,” said Barb Kalbach, CCI member from Dexter. “DNR’s weak rules are letting factory farms get away with gaming the system at the expense of everyday Iowans. We need changes to the master matrix now.”
The master matrix is supposed to provide a comprehensive review of environmental and community risks, allowing counties to recommend denial of facilities that will have harmful impacts. But the matrix developed by the DNR has proven so easy to pass that it has amounted to little more than a rubber stamp: Applicants only need to satisfy enough of the listed criteria to obtain 50 percent of the available points - an “F” by most standards. DNR records show that only 2.2 percent of applications have been denied.
Counties across Iowa have recognized the master matrix is failing, and are taking a stand for real local protections from factory farms. Through resolutions and letters, at least thirteen counties have now called on DNR, legislators, and Governor Reynolds for a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms and/or changes to the master matrix. These counties include Allamakee, Winneshiek, Adair, Dickinson, Buchanan, Cedar, Johnson, Floyd, Howard, Webster, Cerro Gordo, Hardin, and Pocahontas. A local control bill introduced in the Iowa House this year did not pass out of committee.
“In the absence of legislative leadership to protect rural communities through real local control over factory farms, the DNR must use its authority to strengthen the toothless master matrix process,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “With counties and citizens across the state demanding reform of the broken matrix process, the time is ripe for DNR to act.” The petition proposals include:
· A higher minimum passing score, requiring applicants to earn more of the possible points to obtain a permit.
· A one-time enrollment for counties, rather than the current burdensome requirement for counties to readopt the master matrix every year.
· Revisions to the point structure to incentivize practices that prevent or mitigate pollution.
· New criteria that consider factors currently unaddressed by the matrix, such as karst topography, existing water pollution impairments, and water quality monitoring.Elimination of criteria that do not provide meaningful environmental or community benefits.
· Changes to strengthen existing criteria, such as increased separation distances from schools, homes, public use areas, waterways, and wells.
“We can’t handle any more factory farms. Yet we’re operating with a weak, out-dated system that allowes factory farms to expand with virtually no protections for Iowans or the environment,” said Nick Schutt, a CCI member from Alden who lives 1,900 feet from a factory farm.
Mark Kuhn, a member of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors, helped create the master matrix when he served as State Representative in 2002. Today, as a supervisor tasked with implementing the matrix, he is one of the most vocal proponents of strengthening the master matrix.
"The current master matrix gives county supervisors very little ability to do anything except comment on new or expanding livestock confinements. The matrix does not adequately address the concerns of neighbors living nearby confinements or environmental features unique to individual counties," said Kuhn. "That's not what I envisioned when it was first created. The matrix is clearly in need of revision."
Iowa has over 9,000 factory farms, and more than 3,000 of these are large enough to be subject to the matrix by counties that adopt it. These factory farms produce 22 billion gallons of manure each year, and its disposal has widespread impacts on Iowa’s waterways and communities. The state’s latest impaired waters list shows that 750 waterbodies - over half of those tested - are impaired. The majority of these impairments are caused by E. coli bacteria and other pollutants associated with manure.
“I want to propose that we put away labels like Democrat or Republican, lifelong Iowan or newly-arrived citizen, urban or rural. We all need clean water. Who doesn’t need clean water and a healthy environment?” said Brenda Brink, CCI member from Huxley.
In light of Iowa’s water pollution crisis and public outcry over the lack of local input and lax regulations for factory farms, genuine local control over the siting and operation of these facilities is necessary now more than ever. But given the statehouse’s ongoing failure to establish local control, DNR must do the next best thing and use its existing authority to strengthen the master matrix.
Unless the Petitioners agree to an extension, DNR will have 60 days to act by either granting the petition and initiating a rulemaking or denying the petition. A denial by the DNR would be subject to review in state court. The Petitioners are represented by James Larew of Larew Law Office in Iowa City.