Hearing regarding Supreme Beef facility held in Polk County District Court

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The Iowa Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited lawsuit against the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for approving what the groups say is a flawed nutrient management plan for the Supreme Beef, LLC facility near Monona was heard in Polk County District Court Jan. 20.


The lawsuit alleges the DNR and Supreme Beef, LLC used incorrect information and calculations, and misinterpreted state laws and administrative rules, when the department approved Supreme Beef’s plan to spread manure from the 11,600-head livestock facility. The Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited argue the result could be over-application of manure, leading to the pollution of Bloody Run Creek and other waters. 


The groups say the location of the facility in the watershed of Bloody Run Creek—a popular trout stream designated an Outstanding Iowa Water—and its 39-million-gallon manure basin in karst terrain could also be illegal and a threat to groundwater.


At the Jan. 20 court hearing that included roughly 25 spectators, Wally Taylor, attorney for the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, told Judge Scott Rosenberg that the DNR manipulated state laws and administrative rules, in part, because agency staff could not agree on what regulations should apply to the facility. The operation was proposed as Walz Energy in 2017, and it was to hold 10,000 cattle, whose manure would be processed into biogas. Leftover digestate would go into a wastewater lagoon. 


The facility now operates with 11,600 cattle as Supreme Beef, LLC, with at least some of the manure being stored in a basin that was issued a permit for wastewater rather than manure. 


Significantly, argued Taylor, Supreme Beef is located in a region of karst topography, with several sinkholes adjacent to the site. State law prohibits certain manure basins in areas of karst.


DNR attorney David Steward countered that karst and wastewater lagoon prohibitions did not apply to Supreme Beef, which is an operation unlike any other in the state.


Taylor asserted the nutrient management plan (NMP) submitted by Supreme Beef vastly under-estimated the amount of manure that cattle produce, as well as the concentration of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in that manure. That led to the NMP not allowing for enough land on which to apply the manure as fertilizer at rates that could be used by crops. 


Furthermore, Taylor said many of the fields proposed for manure application are highly erosive, although Iowa laws requires the NMP to include restrictions against excessive erosion. 


Lastly, Taylor added that the basin in which the manure is stored is located in a floodway, which should have required a permit before construction.


State laws and administrative rules are detailed and specific, Taylor said, yet the DNR seemed to pick and choose how and when and whether to apply regulations in order to allow Supreme Beef to operate. 


“That’s the very definition of arbitrary and capricious,” he said.


The Sierra Club’s goal is to protect northeast Iowa’s unique Paleozoic Plateau, with Outstanding Iowa Waters, algific slopes and limestone bluffs, Taylor said. 


“This is an area the DNR should be protecting, rather than jeopardizing by manipulating the rules,” he stated.


According to Steward, the only three factors that should be considered in an NMP are the amount of land needed, the amount of manure produced and the capacity of the manure storage basin to hold the waste. He accused the Sierra Club of trying to confuse the issue by bringing up other issues, such as the lagoon construction permit.


Steward said it was the DNR’s job to review the NMP calculations submitted by Supreme Beef.  


“Do you take those at face value?” asked Rosenberg, the judge. “Don’t you do your own calculations?”


Taylor noted earlier that Steve Veysey, a member of the ad hoc Committee to Save Bloody Run, did careful calculations of NMP numbers and pointed out errors to DNR staff.


Steward acknowledged the DNR and Supreme Beef used manure concentration values from Upper Iowa Beef, a slaughterhouse near Lime Springs. Supreme’s NMP said those values were justified because Upper Iowa was a “similar operation.”


“Who determines what’s similar?” queried Rosenberg.


Steward said the DNR and Supreme Beef “took very careful precautions,” realizing that the animal feeding operation “was under more scrutiny than others.”


Steve Pace, attorney for Supreme Beef, LLC, said the burden of proof should be on the Sierra Club. He objected to the Sierra Club’s “collateral attacks” on the Supreme Beef operation.


“The DNR...did a lot to try to be sure they got it right,” Pace said.


“You should do a lot, too,” Rosenberg responded.


According to Pace, Supreme Beef built the manure pit with a clay basin, a plastic liner and extra drain tile around the perimeter—at the recommendation of the DNR.


Taylor concluded the one-hour hearing by repeating that the DNR did not follow its own rules or state laws, and that Becky Sexton of Twin Lakes Environmental Services, who prepared the NMP, admitted she made several mistakes.


Rosenberg promised to issue a ruling “as soon as we can.”


This hearing was one step in environmentalists’ struggles to protect Bloody Run Creek. In a separate case scheduled to go before an administrative law judge in late February, several members of the ad hoc Committee to Save Bloody Run have challenged the DNR’s renewal of a water withdrawal permit for Supreme Beef. The initial permit, issued in 2017, was renewed without changes last year, although the facility has more cattle than originally proposed, and experts have said cattle use much more water than Supreme Beef estimated.


Larry Stone provided reporting for this article.

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