During my many trips to Iowa to research my forthcoming book, Pig Tales, I lost count of the number of times government officials, university professors, and owners of large hog operations assured me that the state enforced strict manure-management regulations to keep the soupy manure, which is usually applied to fields, out of waterways and wells. “We have to account for every drop,” said one pork producer.
I also cannot count the number of times I was told by environmental activists and managers of municipal water systems that such assurances were a pile of, well, manure.
It’s time to score one for the environmentalists—though it’s not the sort of we-told-you-so moment they wished for.
Late last month a pipe ruptured at a farm in northern Iowa spewing 5,000 gallons of raw manure into the Little Cedar River. When Department of Natural Resources employees arrived at the scene, they found dead fish floating along a half mile of the river downstream from the spill.
At a time when many states were cleaning up their rivers and lakes, the number of impaired waterways in Iowa more than tripled from 159 in 1998 to 630 in 2012–a period of rampant growth of factory hog operations.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, seen by activists as a lap dog of agribusiness, responded to the pollution crisis by doing less than nothing—the department actually cut the number of factory farm inspectors from 23 to nine.
In 2007 the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa branch of the Sierra Club, and Washington, DC-based Environmental Integrity Project threatened to sue to force the Department to enforce The Clean Water Act.
The Department agreed to a series of changes, including reinstating some of the fired inspectors, conducting regular on-site monitoring of large hog farms, and increasing fines and penalties for miscreants.
It sounded great on paper, but as Lori Nelson, a board member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, told me—and last month’s spill demonstrates—words on paper mean nothing.
The one bit of good news to come out of Little Cedar spill is that the pollution was prevented from spreading farther and faster because the current was slowed by dams across the river built by beavers. If only the Department of Natural Resources approached its mandate as eagerly.