A report by Environment America says agriculture and farmers contribute to pollution that has made 100,000 miles of U.S. rivers and streams and 2,500 square miles of lakes too polluted for swimming, fishing, drinking or supporting wildlife. Jessica Buchberger, a representative of the nonprofit organization, explained the report at a press conference in Des Moines last week.
Several Iowa environmental groups affiliated with Environment America were represented at the meeting. In addition to blaming farming for sediment and nutrients moving into streams and rivers and ultimately causing hypoxia problems in the Gulf of Mexico, the group also singled out large agricultural firms. Environment America says these firms are among the top polluters and should be forced to cut their emissions.
The report says nationally, large ag firms such as Tyson and Cargill are among the biggest polluters of air and water, based on a federal database of emissions data reported by the firms. Some of the highest pollution in Iowa is occurring in the Cedar, Des Moines, Iowa, Mississippi and Raccoon Rivers. The data, known as the Toxics Release Inventory, often has included incomplete and inaccurate emissions levels and out of date statistics.
Companies are already taking action to help curb pollution
"Environment Iowa urges Iowa legislators to start holding corporate agribusiness accountable," says Buchberger, speaking on behalf of her organization's Iowa affiliates. She says Tyson and Cargill should pledge to end releases of pollutants to waterways and to cut air pollution, too.
Both firms have faced fines for environmental infractions, Tyson at meat packing plants and Cargill at meat and grain processing facilities. But the firms have also worked to reduce pollution, company officials say. "Contrary to the impression left by these groups, which oppose anything involving large agribusiness, our environmental operations and practices have been extensively regulated for decades," says Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson. The federal government has required more sewage treatment, and Tyson has reduced nitrogen in sewage and effluent released at both Storm Lake and Columbus Junction, for example.
At Cargill, beef and pork plants reclaim methane from wastewater lagoons to burn in boilers, says company spokesman Pete Stoddart. Biogas now replaces 20% to 25% of the firm's natural gas demand at its eight meat packing plants, which include one at Ottumwa.
Environmental groups want state lawmakers to do more
Environment America is calling on the Iowa Legislature to ban construction of new, large livestock confinement buildings and to ban the overapplication of fertilizer that leads to pollution of waterways. The group also wants the federal Clean Water Act enforced to provide protection for all waterways.
"We are urging state lawmakers to hold corporations accountable for manure and other waste that animal production and processing produces," says Buchberger. "Pollution limits that are already on the books should be enforced more extensively and we are also calling for improved inspections and stiffer penalties for repeat environmental offenses."
While Environment America wants the government to ensure that the public has full information about livestock confinements and their emissions, the new report from Environment America is critical of cropping and fertilization practices, too. "Better agricultural production practices should be encouraged to reduce water pollution," says Buchberger.