Counties May Not Impose Farm Pollution Laws, Top Iowa Court Rules

Published January 1, 2005

Iowa farmers will not be required to comply with a patchwork of county-specific environmental laws, thanks to an October 6 ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court. In a decision invalidating laws enacted in five Iowa counties, the court determined only the state has the constitutional right to pass environmental measures.

At issue before the court was a Worth County law that set limits on each farm’s ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide emissions. The emissions emanate from livestock manure and, though science has yet to establish a definitive link, are alleged to cause lung irritation, headaches, and other health complaints in neighboring households.

In 2001, just one month after the ordinance went into effect, a group known as Friends of Agriculture challenged the county ordinance, asserting it was preempted by state law. The Iowa Farm Bureau joined Friends of Agriculture in its complaint.

A state court sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that state law indeed precluded counties from imposing county-specific environmental laws on farms. Worth County then appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Exclusive Right to Regulate

The court ruled the Iowa legislature had explicitly retained the right to regulate farms. Moreover, asserted the court, a home-rule law that granted numerous rights to the individual counties did not invalidate the legislature’s retention of livestock regulation powers.

“When the county ordinance is stripped of its health label, it is clearly exposed as an ordinance that regulates the manner and operation of livestock production,” ruled the court. “While Worth County promotes its ordinance as a health measure, its plain effect is to regulate activities that are part of a livestock confinement operation.”

Consistency Ensured

“The ruling restores certainty in Worth County and across Iowa that livestock farmers, regardless of where they live, will be regulated fairly and consistently,” noted Iowa Farm Bureau spokesperson Aaron Putze following the court’s decision.

“Iowa farmers are environmental stewards,” Putze further observed. “They take their responsibility to care for the state’s air, soil, and water quality very seriously because it’s what’s best for the families, neighbors, and communities. They are complying with extensive state laws regarding livestock production and will continue to do so.”

“Farmers recognize that 99 different sets of county regulations would be detrimental to a healthy livestock industry,” Sam Carney, president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, told the Iowa Ag Connection.

Sierra Club Weighed in

The Iowa Farmers Union (IFU), an activist association of small farm owners, joined the Sierra Club in support of the Worth County ordinance.

“We’re the good guys in this fight,” IFU President Chris Peterson, a vocal critic of modern farming practices, told the Ag Connection. “And give us time. This is just a minor setback. We will be successful.”

“The ruling maintains equal opportunity for all livestock farmers,” countered Iowa Farm Bureau spokesperson Putze. “It will help farm families remain active on the land and viable in their communities.”

Senate Majority Leader Steward Iverson (R-Dows) agreed. “I think it’s vitally important that we have uniform laws across the state of Iowa,” Iverson told the Associated Press. “The Supreme Court upholding the lower court decision keeps that in place.”

State Considering Tougher Standards

Federal laws, based on the best available science, currently regulate large farms and their resultant emissions. Additionally, the Iowa legislature has been considering more stringent statewide regulations that would supersede federal regulations.

On April 13, 2004, Governor Tom Vilsack (D) vetoed just such a bill that had cleared the Iowa legislature.

House File 2523 was compromise legislation that would have enacted Iowa’s first state-level livestock air standards. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Greiner (R-Keota), would have reaffirmed federal environmental standards while mandating a comprehensive scientific study of emissions from hog farms and other livestock containment locations. The federal standards set hydrogen sulfide and ammonia caps based on levels recommended by the Agency for Toxic Substances of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Upon completion of a comprehensive examination of farm pollutants, the bill would have authorized whatever additional steps might be necessary to address evidence of hazards to human health or the environment. Importantly, the bill would have authorized regulations more stringent than federal standards if scientific evidence suggested benefits from such an approach.

In addition to invalidating the Worth County ordinance, the Iowa Supreme Court decision invalidated similar ordinances in Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Palo Alto, and Pocohontas counties.

Worth County Board of Supervisors member Ken Abrams told the Associated Press he did not intend to tweak the county ordinance to make it constitutional. “Let the state do it,” he said.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.