Iowa courts deliver two rare wins for environmental groups

This story originally appeared in LV Daily, Little Village’s Monday-Friday email newsletter. Sign up to have it delivered for free to your inbox.

Cattle take shelter at a small farm in northeast Iowa City. — Zoe Pharo/Little Village

Iowa courts handed down two decisions on Friday that were wins for environmental groups looking to safeguard one of the state’s few pristine waterways, and trying to encourage Iowa’s biggest utility to use more renewable energy.

The first win came in a Polk County District Court, where Judge Scott Rosenberg overturned the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) 2021 decision to issue a permit allowing Supreme Beef to build a cattle feedlot near Monona in northeast Iowa. Planned for 11,000 head of cattle, the feedlot would sit in the watershed of Bloody Run Creek, one of the cleanest bodies of water in Iowa and a nationally recognized trout fishing area. The geology of the site is exceptionally porous, increasing the likelihood that a manure leak from the thousands of cattle would damage Bloody Run.

After the DNR awarded the permit, the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited sued alleging the agency had approved Supreme Beef’s nutrient management plan (NMP) — basically, the plan to handle all the manure produced by the cattle — using standards that were not just incorrect, but very favorable to Supreme Beef.

“It is odd to approve a manure storage system that is banned from confinement operations due to the danger of spills and leaks into the porous bedrock,” Rosenberg wrote in his ruling. “To approve it for an open feedlot in the same terrain is particularly odd when the only way this type of manure handling system gets built is if the agency approves it.”

The judge said the DNR decided to approve NMP by using “illogical interpretations and applications.”

Opponents of building a feedlot in the environmentally sensitive area have suggested the DNR caved to political pressure to issue the permit.

“Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, contacted the DNR on behalf of Supreme Beef, email records show. One of the company’s principals, Jared Walz, is married to Zumbach’s daughter, Chelsea,” the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported in September 2021, when the lawsuit was filed. “Also, Becky Sexton of Twin Lakes Environmental Services wrote to a DNR field office staffer on behalf of Supreme Beef during the approval process. Sexton is married to Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, and the two founded Twin Lakes. Rep. Sexton is on the House environmental protection and agriculture committees.”

Zumbach is the chair of Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, which sets the budget for the DNR.

Judge Rosenberg’s ruling sends the matter back to the DNR for reconsideration.

“We hope that the DNR got the message that its discretion is not unlimited and that it must follow its own rules,” Sierra Club attorney Wally Taylor said in an email to the Gazette, which first reported on the district court decision.

Also on Friday, a united Iowa Supreme Court ruled the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) had erred when it approved MidAmerican Energy’s emission control plan (ECP) in 2020, because it rejected studies showing it would be more cost-effective to use renewable energy sources than coal-fired plants without properly considering them first.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Sierra Club sued, seeking to have the decision overturned. A district court had sided with IUB and MidAmerican, and the environmental groups appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In his opinion, Justice Christopher McDonald wrote that is up to IUB to decide if the studies favoring renewable energy sources are reason enough to have MidAmerican alter its ECP, but the agency cannot just ignore the studies, because their “evidence is relevant.”

“An agency is entitled to reconcile relevant evidence not ignore relevant evidence,” McDonald wrote. “Where the agency fails to consider relevant evidence, the agency’s action is unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and the product of illogical reasoning.”

All the justices joined McDonald’s opinion, except Justice David May, who did not participate in the case.

The decision on MidAmerican’s emission plan now goes back to the IUB for reconsideration.