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07 April 2009 @ 06:25 pm
Obama's EPA to the rescue  
This is as good a time as any to begin journaling about my activist side. We think we have a minor win at the moment, and those are rare, so it feels good to tell about it.

One day I'll expand on the over-a-dozen years I've already spent working on these issues. But the latest episode is enough for now.

This spring the Iowa Senate passed a bill that would have allowed factory farms to ladle manure on top of snow and frozen ground. Most factory farms--in Iowa these are generally confinement buildings housing at least 1250 hogs apiece, and many such 'farms' sport at least two, sometimes four, and occasionally many more such buildings--have on-site storage for something like 6 months of manure.  These days we're talking about manure pits beneath the buildings, as opposed to the earthen lagoons that used to be the norm. So you don't usually SEE much manure--it's hidden from view--but it's most definitely there. The buildings are designed in such a way that the floor beneath the hogs is a grate, and urine and feces fall through the grate to the pit below. Imagine how awful this is, to live out your life in this sort of setting. This is animal abuse, in my opinion. And then there's the minuscule space allotted to each animal--so minuscule that sows cannot even turn around--but all of this is perfectly legal in most of these United States. The livestock industry is so powerful in this country that in most states we get nowhere by making an animal abuse argument. So, we concentrate on other areas.

The manure is mixed with water so that it can be transported through flexible pipes into, for example,  huge manure wagons. Full pits are partly sucked out, the contents transported to nearby fields that are part of a factory farm's "manure management plan," and the manure is "knifed" into the ground. This is possible, of course, only at times of year when no crops are growing on that ground, and when the ground is not frozen. In Iowa, fields are crop-less from about Thanksgiving until mid-April, so factory farms roughly plan on applying manure, say, in early April and again in late November. Weather can interfere with this, however. since--for instance-- you never want to haul a super-heavy manure wagon onto a wet field. That compacts the soil and can dramatically reduce crop yields, especially in spring. So that's why factory farms want the 'flexibility' of being able to place manure on top of frozen ground (into which it cannot be 'knifed,' since the ground is too hard) or on top of snow (which tends to cover most Iowa crop ground for 4-5 months each winter).

The problem is that manure--and we're talking thousands upon thousands upon thousands of gallons-- that is not knifed into the soil, tends to slip and slide to the lowest areas, just like water does when the snow melts, or when it rains. So you get what's called runoff, which FOULS surface water. Factory farms like to complain that they suffer under the weight of SO much regulation that of COURSE they don't dirty the water. This is bullshit. Iowa has some of the dirtiest water in the nation, and factory farms are a big reason for that.

Last spring Iowa had heavy rains, and there  was lots of this sort of runoff. Tests showed super-high ammonia levels in surface waters, and so we petitioned the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to begin the process of writing a new rule that would restrict factory farms from
putting their manure on frozen or snow-covered ground. Such rules can take a year or more to finalize. They're still tweaking it, having only just completed the set of public hearings that's required every time any such new rule is formulated. It could be stronger, but it's a good start.

But the Iowa Senate's bill would pull the rug out from beneath the new DNR rule. The bill basically legalizes manure on snow or frozen ground except for a 2-month late winter period, and even then, manure could be ladled on such ground in undefined 'emergency' situations.

I was most recently at the capitol a week ago trying to stop this bad bill. Also at  the Legislature that day were dozens and dozens of livestock producers. They had come to feed the legislators free steak sandwiches and to ask them to pass the bad bill. The activists I work with don't have the resources to persuade our legislators with freebies like that, so we were severely outmaneuvered. Still, we held a press conference and made our case as best we could. What we were trying to do is to make sure the bill, which had already passed in  the Iowa Senate, could somehow be stopped before it also was passed the Iowa House. But the situation looked pretty bleak.

Then, something amazing happened. We found out that the Kansas City  regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency--which is part of the federal government-- had sent a letter dated March 30 to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stating that the bad bill, if enacted into law, was essentially going to put the state in the position of violating the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). I won't go into the details of what that means, but suffice it to say that this is a BIG STICK that, in the Bush administration, would not have been wielded, but in the Obama administration, apparently IS being wielded. Woohoo!

The upshot is that that suddenly the Iowa Legislature has become very silent concerning the bad bill's future in the House. In essence, if the bad bill is enacted into law, the EPA could make good on its Big Stick threat. And if the bill DOESN'T get enacted, the DNR rule will not be undercut (unless the legislature goes nutso and negates the rule, which seems unlikely).

We are not quite ready to call this a win, and stuff happens almost daily that moves the ball in this game to and fro. I also wish we didn't have to rely on the federal government's clout just to make commonsense stuff happen. But I'm sure glad they're around right now. Maybe, just maybe, we've turned a corner.

Alex R.: happy robotoniugnip on April 10th, 2009 05:15 am (UTC)
Thank you :)

(maybe soon we'll have vats full of bacteria and stem cells that grow pre-fried bacon without generating manure or making any pigs suffer.)
deepdistractiondeepdistraction on April 10th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! One of the first Robert A. Heinlein sci-fi books I read had vats like that, on huge spaceships that carried relocating populations from one planet to another, on years-long journeys. Residents were served sliced-off pieces of whatever was growing in the vats, for protein. (Appetizing, this wasn't.) But plants were also grown, on levels of the ship devoted to agriculture. Too bad Heinlein was such a creature of his time. Otherwise he would have realized that the plants would have sufficed to feed the ship.