Iowa lawmakers last week unveiled their long-awaited plan to limit water and air pollution from livestock confinements, setting the framework for one of the most significant environmental initiatives in state history.

Senate File 2293 poses a major test of legislative leaders' ability to bring warring factions together on an issue that is tearing many Iowa communities apart. At the same time, leaders say they must ease fears that one of the state's most lucrative but least-regulated industries is making people sick.

The legislation contains several firsts. The first air-pollution limits on livestock confinements. The first ban on building livestock operations in floodplains. The first fees charged to producers to help pay for state environmental inspectors' work. The first limits on manure applications based on how much algae-feeding phosphorus the material contains.

The bill also includes a new checklist to rate the social and environmental risks of a proposed confinement and a fresh set of stiffer fines for spill-related environmental damage, to be set by state environmental commissions.

Richard Kelley of the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory said fulfillment of the proposal would amount to a monumental improvement. “The fact of the matter is, if they passed what they have talked about, it's an incredibly significant piece of legislation for the state of Iowa, which up to now, quite frankly, has refused to face the issue,” said Kelley, who has studied Iowa water quality for 20 years. “The past bills gave everyone a warm fuzzy feeling and they felt like, ‘Well we've done something.’ I don't think what has gone on in this state suggests that they did accomplish much.”

The new legislation attempts to balance concerns about the condition of Iowa's water and air, and its quality of life, with the economic necessity of delivering high-quality and low-cost lean pork. As the number of hog farms dropped with the growth of large-scale confinements, the state tried twice, largely unsuccessfully, in the late 1990s to regulate the industry while appeasing its critics.

Paul Johnson, a former state lawmaker, past director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and former top Clinton administration environmental official, said the bill will help considerably if lawmakers approve it. “I think it would be very significant,” Johnson said. “Very often we throw a bone here and there and say, ‘Now maybe people will be quiet.’ I hope they are saying, ‘Now, this is a good system,’ based on scientific measurements of pollution risks.”

John Downing, an Iowa State University water-quality expert, said the bill's move to limit phosphorus will help fight the biggest threat to Iowa's lakes. “Anything that goes wrong with lakes usually has to do with phosphorus,” Downing said. His study of Iowa lakes found that state waters had some of the highest phosphorus concentrations in the world.

The bill was drafted by a bipartisan group of a dozen lawmakers. They started work after legislative leaders announced before the session's start in January that they were ready to address the odors and contaminants from livestock confinements that had infuriated many of their constituents.

“The bill does take significant steps toward improving air and water quality. It may not go as far as people want, but it's a good bill,” said House Speaker Brent Siegrist. The Council Bluffs Republican predicts the bill will pass and that it will be signed into law.

It's more likely some piece of the legislation, such as the no-brainer ban on building in floodplains, will pass, Johnson said. “Often, special interests take over in the back room,” he said. “I fear that will happen again this time.”

Eldon McAfee, a lawyer representing the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said last week his group was just beginning to review the bill and would comment this week.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has said it wants to make sure that the new fees to be charged for manure-management plans are set low enough so smaller farmers' livelihoods aren't threatened. The organization also has questioned the wisdom of setting limits on manure disposal based on phosphorus.

Environmental groups see the bill, if passed, as a monumental turn of events in Iowa's fight against agricultural pollution.

“This could be an historic moment for Iowa's environment,” said Elizabeth Horton-Plasket, executive director of the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, which represents the state's major environmental organizations.

“We're still digesting it, but it appears that the Legislature has created some important tools for correcting some of the environmental, social, and economic problems related to concentrated livestock production in Iowa.”

“Livestock producers know that the land, air and water are their livelihoods,” said Aaron Heley-Lehman with the Iowa Farmer's Union. “Many producers are on the forefront of environmental protections. This bill could actually help those producers.”

Des Moines Register