Vilsack's Veto of Air Quality Bill Rankles Farm Bureau

The controversy continues. State legislator Sandra Greiner expects the issue of air quality emission standards for livestock confinements will be debated by the Legislature again next year. Rod Swoboda

Published on: Apr 21, 2004

Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack on April 13 vetoed legislation that would have set limits for air pollution from livestock confinements. He said the proposed standards in the bill would have been too lenient.

Iowa Farm Bureau leaders, who supported the bill and pushed hard for its passage, dispute Vilsack's reasoning. The Farm Bureau ran radio ads on stations across the state last week criticizing Vilsack's veto.

The governor's veto continues a debate that has polarized Iowa farmers, businesses and cities against doctors, environmentalists and university professors. "Our state regulatory officials tell us that under the standard that was proposed in that piece of legislation, there is not a single confinement facility in the state of Iowa that would have had any fear of violating that standard," says Vilsack. That's one of the main reasons he vetoed the bill, says Vilsack.

The bill, known as House File 2523, set standards for hydrogen sulfide and ammonia that Republican lawmakers said were based on sound science. They used levels recommended by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the federal Centers for Disease Control.

However, Vilsack says the bill's proposed limit for hydrogen sulfide, at 70 parts per billion, was much more lenient than outdoor air standards of 50 parts per billion for chronic exposure in Missouri and Minnesota, or 30 parts per billion in California.

"This bill did not offer protection of air quality"

"The proposed Iowa legislation would have essentially established a standard for hydrogen sulfide that provides little protection or assurance of any significant protection to those who live near or around a livestock confinement facility," says Vilsack. "This is no standard. This is no protection. We can do better."

Representative Sandra Greiner, a Republican from Keota in southeast Iowa, guided the bill through the House. Responding to the governor's veto, she points out that some states have no air quality standard at all. "This bill we proposed for Iowa would have certainly been way ahead of those states," she says. "There are more states that don't have standards than those that do."

Members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement praised the governor's veto. "We're glad he took a step toward public health and clean air," says Nancy Romslo of Royal, Iowa.

James Merchant, dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, also praised the veto. "This bill would have put the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) out of business in regulating this particular industry," he said.

Vilsack suggests a compromise of 30 ppb

However, Craig Lang, Iowa Farm Bureau President, is quite critical. "Legislators worked hard this session to establish air quality standards consistent with numbers proposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control," says Lang. "Yet, Governor Vilsack, with the stroke of a pen, closed the door on an opportunity to move Iowa forward."

To reach a compromise, Vilsack has directed the DNR to revise its proposed 15 parts per billion hydrogen sulfide limit to a 30 parts per billion limit for 60 minutes, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Vilsack predicts the revised proposal would pass a legislative committee assigned to review rules. He notes that Iowa law requires air quality rules to be in place by December.

However, Lang says Vilsack's proposal is "equally troublesome" because it's 100 times more restrictive than federal levels. "The 30 parts per billion number the Governor has chosen remains arbitrary. Health standards are not negotiable."

Greiner expects thee issue will be debated by the Legislature again next year. "Adopting limits that are too strict would force the livestock industry to move out of Iowa," she says.

Iowa Air Quality Coalition criticizes veto

Members of the Iowa Air Quality Coalition are: Agribusiness Association of Iowa, Association of Business and Industry, Iowa Cattlemen's Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Dairy Products Association, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Institute of Cooperatives; Iowa League of Cities, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Poultry Association, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa State Dairy Association and Iowa Turkey Federation.

These Iowa agriculture and business leaders represent thousands of farmers, citizens and concerned Iowans, points out the Farm Bureau's Lang, a dairy farmer from Brooklyn, Iowa. The coalition, in a press release, said the veto of air quality legislation bypassed national, peer-reviewed science and minimizes the legislature's role in finding a bipartisan solution to this issue.

Members of the Iowa Air Quality Coalition said the veto of House File 2523, which passed the Senate and House of Representatives by nearly two-to-one margins, said it will also make it increasingly difficult for farmers to remain productive and viable.

Farmers do care about the environment

"Protecting the health of Iowans is a goal shared by all those involved in food production. After all, farmers live and work with their livestock every day. They wouldn't do anything to negate their health, health of their families or their neighbors," says coalition member and northwest Iowa dairyman Reed Metzger.

The coalition's written statement says the Vilsack administration's decision to move from a 15 parts-per-billion (ppb) air quality threshold for hydrogen sulfide to 30 ppb is "troublesome".

This value, which would be measured over a one-hour average and could only be exceeded seven times during the year. Also it is more than 100 times more restrictive than levels established by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), notes the coalition's press release.

Farmers and concerned citizens throughout Iowa strongly criticized the original 15 ppb threshold during a DNR public comment period that ended April 8. More than 500 farmers attended the series of hearings held around the state during the past couple of months, while nearly 2,000 written comments were received at the DNR office supporting CDC numbers.

Main objective should be to protect public health

"The new threshold chosen by the Administration is an arbitrary one that is not supported by levels established by the national premier health experts," adds Iowa Poultry Association Executive Director Kevin Vinchattle.

"Our main objective should be to protect public health, not to simply set a threshold that creates violators," says Vinchattle.

The Coalition also takes issue with Gov. Vilsack's comment in answer to a reporter's question that those people who are in support of "sound science" and the air quality bill passed by the Iowa Legislature are opposed to any regulation.

"This is not true and does not represent the thousands of comments submitted by farmers and voiced at the DNR public hearings held throughout the state," says Metzger. "Farmers have always said that they support regulation if it has a scientific health basis."

Vinchattle says "the health and well-being of farm families and their neighbors can and must coexist in Iowa. However, the governors veto and the establishment of a new arbitrary threshold makes that effort more difficult."