DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A hog farm in southeast Iowa run by a Carlyle, Ill., corporation has become a battleground between environmental groups, state officials responsible for protecting the environment and modern farming operations that consolidate thousands of animals in confinement buildings.
Environmental and community activist groups including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Humane Society of the United States have been increasing pressure in recent years on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to step up enforcement of environmental regulations against hog farms, which they say pollute the state's rivers and streams too frequently with manure spills.
The groups want hog farms to be forced to obtain Clean Water Act permits, which would require them to conform to stricter rules by spelling out specific changes that could include costly upgrades of manure storage equipment and other measures. The permit process could also result in increased fines for future spills.
The focus now is on the Maschoffs farm near Keosauqua, an operation where 7,500 hogs generate 11 million gallons of liquefied manure a year. Last November, the farm spilled thousands of gallons when an underground pipe clogged and broke under the pressure.
That spill has become part of a dispute over how Iowa oversees such facilities.
The state has resisted increasing the regulatory burden for the hog farms because it would increase costs and signal a change in the farm-friendly perception Iowa has develop to attract the industry, which generated nearly $7 billion in cash receipts in the state last year. Iowa is the nation's leading pork producer with about 21 million hogs on farms, nearly a third of the nation's 68 million animals.
Under pressure from environmental groups, the DNR in September reached an agreement with the EPA to inspect more farms and more strictly enforce penalties for manure spills. The agreement requires those enforcement rules including a permit process to be developed by March and finalized by next September.
The agreement came after the EPA threatened last year to step in and take over from the DNR clean water enforcement.
The Maschhoffs farm's spill happened Nov. 4, sending thousands of gallons of manure into a dry creek. Maschhoffs workers dug a pit to stop the manure flow and pumped manure back into a massive lagoon that holds millions of gallons.
In warmer months, the operation's manure is injected into the soil on about 590 acres of nearby farmland. In the winter months, when the ground is frozen, the lagoon fills with manure.
The DNR sent Maschhoffs a letter dated Nov. 19 that said its manure handling procedures resulted in a manure discharge that violated state law. It criticized the company for not reporting the spill within six hours as required. The DNR told the company to immediately apply manure from the lagoon to farmland and to prevent further discharges of manure.
"Be advised that this matter is being reviewed for consideration for enforcement action," the DNR said.
A DNR spokesman declined Tuesday to comment beyond the letter.
Enforcement could include up to $10,000 in fines imposed by the DNR, mandated operational changes, and a requirement that the operation obtain a permit under the federal Clean Water Act.
Maschhoffs responded with a letter dated Dec. 12 saying the company follows Iowa's regulations and that the spill was promptly stopped and the pipe repaired.
Company spokeswoman Julie Maschhoff said the creek into which manure flowed is not a real creek, but a drainage area in which the manure pooled and was contained. She said the manure never reached any of the state's waters.
"I think it is a very good example of how the regulations work when they are enforced. The facts are everything was done by the book. We reported the spill as soon as we discovered it."
The DNR says the spill wasn't reported for at least 7 hours after it was discovered at around 7 a.m. Nov. 4.
On Dec. 9, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement sent a letter to the DNR demanding the state fine the company the maximum allowed and refer the case to the Attorney General's office for consideration of additional penalties.
ICCI, a grassroots community organization that opposes large-scale livestock farms, also wants the DNR to issue a Clean Water Act permit "so that this facility is either forced to play by stronger rules or is shut down."
ICCI and the Humane Society of the United States on Nov. 21 filed a notice of intent to sue the Maschhoff farm if the DNR doesn't issue a water permit within the 60 days, which would be late January. ICCI spokesman David Goodner said the Maschhoff response to the DNR indicates the company isn't accepting responsibility.
"If it's a fight they want, it's a fight they're going to get," he said in an interview.
Maschhoff said many of the group's criticisms are "patently false" and slanderous. She said the threatened legal action it is frivolous and without merit.