Whether we’re talking about fracking, controlling water systems or dozens of other issues, nobody is better suited to make decisions about matters that affect local communities than the people who live there. Makes sense, right? When it comes to the permitting of factory farms, public health, drinking water and quality of life are better protected when those who would be directly affected play a role in deciding if these these toxic and polluting facilities should be built at all.
Big Ag knows this. It knows that communities with decision-making authority will use that authority to protect people, their homes and their water. As a result, Big Ag has worked to eliminate local control in many states—advocating for measures that strip communities of any role in the permitting process. It’s easier to build a factory farm when permitting decisions are made entirely at the state level—by people who are often out of touch with local conditions and who may be vulnerable to industry influence.
Often with support from Big Ag, states attempt to restrict local control of factory farm proposals in a few different ways. Some set statewide standards and prohibit local ordinances from being more stringent than these standards. Some prohibit local zoning or health boards from regulating factory farms. Some implement “Right to Farm” laws which invalidate local ordinances completely.
Each year, bills seeking to remove local control are introduced in statehouses across the country—many with backing from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the Farm Bureau. Big Ag lobbies extensively for these bills, and one need only take a cursory look into campaign contributions to see which politicians are doing its bidding. Often these measures are successful—provisions removing local control over agricultural practices were eliminated in Texas and North Carolina in 2017. Minnesotans narrowly fought off a similar measure.
A few states still give communities some input into the permitting of factory farms. Wisconsin and Missouri allow counties to pass health ordinances that can influence where factory farms are built. Iowa counties can use a tool called the Master Matrix—essentially a scoring system for factory farm applications—to influence the permitting process.
Unfortunately in Iowa, the Master Matrix has failed—meaning local communities don’t have the influence they should. The matrix was created in 2002 by the legislature in response to demand for local protections from factory farms, but over the past 15 years it has become clear the matrix is broken—it works for factory farms and Big Ag but not for Iowa communities.
Iowa has a serious water pollution problem. There are over 9,000 factory farms in the state; collectively they produce 22 billion gallons of manure each year. The state’s latest impaired waters list shows that 750 waterbodies – over half of those tested – were found to be polluted, many by E. coli bacteria and other pollutants associated with manure runoff. The state’s largest water utility, the Des Moines Water Works, struggles to treat its water for nitrates discharged from the thousands of factory hog farms in counties upstream.
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 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. What grade did you need to pass high school algebra? Likely higher than 50 percent – an “F” by most standards. In the past 15 years only 2.2 percent of factory farm applications in the state have been denied.
Iowa’s legislature has failed to fix this broken system by establishing genuine local control, so we’re calling on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to use its existing authority to strengthen the matrix. Along with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, we’ve filed a rulemaking petition seeking the following improvements:
- 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 vulnerable groundwater resources, existing water pollution impairments, and water quality monitoring.
- Changes to strengthen existing criteria, such as increased separation distances between factory farms and schools, homes, public use areas, waterways, and wells.
Given the water quality crisis in Iowa and the struggles to protect drinking water supplies for thousands of Iowans, meaningful local control over the siting and operation of factory farms is more necessary now than ever. The Master Matrix is no substitute for real local control, but it can be a tool that actually serves local communities. The Iowa legislature has failed Iowa communities in its refusal to let communities say no to more factory farms, so the DNR needs to use its authority to ensure that public health, water supplies and communities are protected from the onslaught of factory farm pollution. Join us in calling on Iowa’s DNR to strengthen the Master Matrix.