Opposition strong at Walz Energy stormwater permit hearing

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A standing room only crowd packed the public meeting room at the Clayton County Office Building in Elkader Nov. 29, as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) accepted public comments regarding the proposed individual stormwater permit for the Walz Energy facility currently under construction east of Monona. This photo shows construction at the site, which will be a 10,000-head cattle feedlot and biogas operation, in early November. (Photo by Larry Stone)

The Walz family and others associated with the facility attended the hearing. Debbie Walz was the only one to speak, but did not provide information about the project. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Tammy Thompson, whose family lives near the Walz Energy site, spoke at the Nov. 29 hearing, stating it was “apparent Walz Energy found many loopholes in the system to avoid public comment and potential delays in their construction process.”

Scott Cherne, president of the Clayton County Cattlemen, said he supports Walz Energy because of the positive economic impact on Clayton County. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Rowland Jones lives 2.5 to 3 miles north of the Walz Energy site and worried about the location's vulnerability to sinkholes. “An operation like this should have been put out in western Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska, some place in flat country where they didn’t know what a sinkhole was. It shouldn’t have been put around here," he stated. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Winneshiek County resident Steve McCargar questioned the last time the DNR denied a NPDES permit. “How could our DNR allow this? Is the DNR the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of No Responsibility?” he wondered. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

A standing room only crowd packed the public meeting room at the Clayton County Office Building in Elkader Nov. 29, as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) accepted public comments regarding the proposed individual stormwater permit for the Walz Energy facility currently under construction east of Monona.

Over 40 individuals shared their thoughts on the 10,000-head cattle feedlot and biogas operation, with a majority opposing issuance of the permit.

The hearing marked the first public meeting related to the project.

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Work at the Walz Energy site began nine months ago, clearing the way for construction of six open front cattle barns, to go with an additional barn already in existence, as well as a feed storage area, concrete transfer pits and an earthen liquid manure storage lagoon with a capacity of nearly 39 million gallons. 

Also included on the site will be tanks for anaerobic digestion and methane production. The manure from the 10,000 cattle at the site will be captured and, with the help of the anaerobic digesters, combined with waste feed products to produce natural gas.

This construction has continued even though the DNR has yet to issue a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the project, which is taking place within the watershed of Bloody Run Creek, an Outstanding Iowa Water.

According to Eric Wiklund, supervisor of the NPDES Section of the Iowa DNR, who spoke prior to the hearing, that wasn’t unusual.

“Issuance of a stormwater permit is not required prior to initiating soil disturbance,” he told the crowd. “Issuance of a stormwater permit is required prior to a discharge [of pollutants].”

However, said Wiklund, with Iowa’s unpredictable precipitation events and the difficulty in stabilizing areas prior to rainfall, the DNR encourages everyone to apply for a stormwater permit when exceeding one acre of soil disturbance. 

“The department recognized early in the permitting process the concerns of the site proximity to Bloody Run Creek,” he said. “Due to its location, the department required an individual stormwater permit rather than a general permit and required submission of a stormwater pollution prevention plan. We worked extensively with the facility to ensure the stormwater pollution prevention plan was complete and approvable before we would issue a permit. Continued implementation and updating of this stormwater pollution prevention plan is key to protecting resources.”

Wiklund said DNR staff have conducted regular inspections of the Walz Energy site. In October, they documented a discharge and issued a notice of violation. The facility, he commented, has since made changes to prevent future discharges.

“The field office will continue to work closely with the facility while construction is occurring,” he added.

Many at the hearing felt the DNR’s efforts were insufficient—or even wrong. 

Larry Stone, of Elkader, said he disagreed with the law’s opinion that a permit was not needed prior to construction, and felt it was unfair of the DNR to allow Walz to continue without clarifying the rules, especially after a discharge occurred.

“Rather than requiring that the work cease until the problems were addressed, the DNR has given Walz tacit approval, allowing work to go on,” he said. “It is further unfair to Walz to allow them to continue construction that could be determined to be illegal, perhaps requiring litigation for work already done. But furthermore, it’s very unfair and an affront to the public to allow construction that could do irreversible damage to the environment.”

Susan Heathcoate, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, noted her organization believed Walz’s stormwater pollution prevention plan did not meet minimum requirements. The preventative measures it laid out were vague, she said.

Sam Wooden, an attorney from Dubuque, agreed.

“There has been no dye tracing, no background levels, nothing provided to the state to make a decision as to where this wastewater/stormwater will go. [The DNR] is going to approve it anyway,” he said. “I’d also point out that the permit rationale says pollutants discharged are not believed to cause a problem for Bloody Run Creek. They say that without empirical evidence.”

“It is apparent Walz Energy found many loopholes in the system to avoid public comment and potential delays in their construction process,” remarked Tammy Thompson, whose family lives just over 1,000 feet from the site. “It has been stated by Mr. Wiklund that a permit wouldn’t necessarily be needed at commencement of construction in a flat or low-lying area. This site was not a flat field. Scraping the land bare of top soil down to clay does not decrease the potential of stormwater runoff.”

Daryl Bruxvoort, representing the Clayton County Conservation Awareness Network, called on the DNR to halt issuance of the permit until an independent review is conducted on what he described as “the DNR’s lack of regulatory oversight and enforcement of state of Iowa statutes governing the Walz Energy site.”

Steve Veysey, a board member with the Hawkeye Flyfishing Association, questioned why the DNR would even bother to issue a permit at this point, when Walz Energy didn’t seem to care if it had one or not.

“He’s been operating for nine months without one,” Veysey said, referring to Walz Energy’s chief operating officer Jon Haman, whose partners in the project include the Feeder Creek Group, brothers Dean and Mike Walz, of Monona, and Mike’s son, Jared. “If someone is stealing from you—and when you reduce water quality you’re stealing from me and everyone in this room—and you find out, why then issue them a permit saying ‘Well, go ahead and continue stealing?’”

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Although last week’s hearing was only meant to address Walz Energy’s stormwater permit, Jon Tack, chief of the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau, said he understood those at the hearing had other concerns about the operation’s long-term effects. People were allowed to talk about those issues, and the DNR would listen he explained, but the comments wouldn’t play a role in the final decision.

Audience members voiced an array of concerns. Allison Bell, who was raised in McGregor and recently moved back to the area, summed them up.

“This project is a perfect storm. The location and size of the facility, the geology and proximity to an Outstanding Iowa Waterway, provides a unique opportunity to do widespread damage,” she detailed. “Leaks from this facility into Bloody Run have the potential to ruin miles of healthy and beloved waterways.”

Stone said the danger of potential and actual impacts is exacerbated by Walz Energy’s location in the watershed of Bloody Run Creek, an Outstanding Iowa Water designated by the EPA and Iowa law for increased protection. 

“Bloody Run is a popular trout stream, with several hundred acres of public land downstream from Walz,” he said.

The site’s location in karst topography makes the venture especially risky, noted those in opposition.

“Basically, karst topography means there’s a bunch of holes in it,” described Ted Fleener.

“We’ve got Spook Cave around here, which really says something about the texture of the soil and the limestone,” added Ron Spears. “We know that’s very porous; it leaks. It’s not a place to store manure.”

The area is also prone to sinkholes, which can form without warning. Walz Energy will remain vulnerable to that eventuality into the future, Stone said.

Rowland Jones lives 2.5 to 3 miles north of the facility and attested to that.

“The two farms right north of that have sinkholes galore,” he said. “An operation like this should have been put out in western Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska, some place in flat country where they didn’t know what a sinkhole was. It shouldn’t have been put around here. Bloody Run is one big thing that needs to be looked at, but we also need to look at the possibility of a sinkhole opening up right underneath where they’re digging their big swimming pool.”

Taking the area’s topography and proclivity for sinkholes into account, audience members feared the damage to ground water if the Walz Energy lagoon were to leak.

“If we’re waiting for something to happen down there, and it happens, it’s going to be too late,” said Bob Schroeder, of Postville. “It’s not right to allow Walz Energy to gamble with our most valuable resource—our ground water.”

Others worried heavier rainfalls and flash flooding would provide further threats.

“Our weather is changing. We’re going to get a lot of rain, we’re going to get a lot of floods. There’s no doubt about it,” Spears said. “Who’s going to address that, who’s going to be responsible? A lot of that cannot be fixed once it’s ruined.”

John Finley, of Elkader, a Walz supporter, noted there are a lot of what-ifs in daily life. He and other supporters said the Walz family, and its partners, wouldn’t do anything to knowingly hurt the area in which they live. 

The Walz family and others associated with the facility attended the hearing. Debbie Walz was the only one to speak, providing information unrelated to the project, but about her children and their families.

Richard Gassman, from Ankeny, who’s worked with Jon Haman, said the facility is even going above and beyond by putting a liner in their lagoon.

Tack, the chief of the Water Quality Bureau, said Walz’s lagoon meets the DNR’s standards for the amount of separation between bedrock. 

“We went through our normal permitting process, we did not waive any design standards or locational distance requirements and we determined we had no basis to deny its approval,” he told the audience. “We approved the construction of that lagoon, and that permit is final.”

Veysey, the Hawkeye Fly Fishing Association board member, said he felt Tack misstated the facts, and cited a report from a retired state geologist that said bedrock depth in site borings varies from 14 feet to over 40.

“As they’re scraping from the floor of the bottom of the lagoon, they’re already scraping at the level of porous limestone,” he explained. “Every time it rains, muddy water goes down into those formations. So even if they don’t have a breach at the end of the lagoon, which they did by the way, they’re still having stormwater going down into the bedrock and into your aquifer.”

Bruxvoort, of Clayton County CAN, said the DNR ignored Iowa wastewater treatment facilities designs from the state code that say all cells must be lined with a synthetic liner if the facility is located in an area of known or suspected fractured limestone. Walz Energy didn’t voluntarily commit to this liner until late November, he remarked. 

Even having a liner doesn’t make the project fool-proof, said Steve McCargar, a Winneshiek County resident.

“You can count on the fact that, over time, whether this is a lined or unlined lagoon, it’s going to leak,” he shared.

Aside from the quality of the area’s water, some worried about the quantity. The facility’s well permit is for over 21 million gallons per year, but  Monte Marti, of Waukon, estimated at least double that would be needed.

“Get ready to drill a new well,” he told those who live nearby.

It is a prospect neighbor Rowland Jones has considered.

“I have lived 72.5 years on the same farm and I’ve already drilled two new wells and I don’t want to have to drill a third well,” he said. “Drawing the amount of water they intend to draw is going to affect an awful lot of people’s wells.”

Tack said the DNR issued a water allocation permit to Walz on June 1. When approving the permit, the department considered the well use, proximity to neighboring wells and the water table. 

“We looked at historic levels and our water allocation experts determined it would not have an impact on neighboring wells,” he said, but noted those provisions will be re-evaluated over time.

Bell, the McGregor native, said not just water quality, but quality of life, should be considered over time. She worried the Walz Energy facility would detract from the county’s tourist economy and discourage people from moving to the area.

“Like other rural areas, northeast Iowa suffers from a brain drain. That means our educated young people leave for better opportunities and they don’t come back. This brain drain adversely affects our economy,” she said. “Although many northeast Iowa natives would like to come back, projects like this CAFO are a repellent to those people. Basically, if you’re going to have dirty air and dirty water, you might as well stay in the city where the jobs pay more and you have more opportunities.”

Scott Cherne, president of the Clayton County Cattlemen, who supports the project, saw it differently.

“We encourage you guys to take an open mind and look at this operation as an opportunity for the local youth,” he said. “Livestock is the only way we’re going to continue to live in this county, to bring kids and youth into the county.”

JanLee Rowlett, government and regulatory affairs manager for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, agreed, calling livestock production the cornerstone of many Iowa communities. 

“We support endeavors to encourage technology, animal husbandry and environmental practices to keep local economies in rural Iowa thriving, while being caretakers of our animals and our natural resources,” she shared.

Bell wasn’t sold, however.

“I see this project as a rare opportunity for the DNR,” she said. “It’s not every day that a proposed project carries so much risk for so many and so little benefit for so few.”

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Many at the hearing were frustrated that it seemed like issuance of the permit was a foregone conclusion.

“If you think for a second this permit isn’t already done, you’re out of your mind,” Wooden, the Dubuque attorney, said. “This is a sham hearing.”

James Arvidson, of McGregor, implored DNR staff in attendance to do their job for the people of Iowa, not special interests.

“I pay your salaries in my taxes, guys. And you make it pretty damn hard for me to wanna pay my taxes when this is the kind of responsibility you show to the concern of your constituents,” he stated. “How do you go to sleep at night knowing what you know about this situation?” 

McCargar, a Winneshiek County resident, questioned the last time the DNR denied a NPDES permit.

“How could our DNR allow this? Is the DNR the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of No Responsibility?” he wondered. “This is a direct result of a legislature and governor who are in the back pockets of the livestock industry. If you don’t want it to happen, you’ve got to change the legislature, change the governor.”

If people are upset, they need to address the root of the problem, said Jeff Klinge, a farmer from rural Farmersburg. That, he commented, is Iowa’s extreme focus on row crop production. 

“Corn is below the cost of production, and it’s been that way for quite awhile. If we’re going to grow all this corn, we’ve got to find uses,” he explained. “As far as the Walz’s CAFO, it’s almost gotten to the point where it’s not a question of whether or not we should have it, but we almost need it.”

It’s a no-win situation for many people, said Kayla Koether.

“We really need to be looking at establishing new ways for farmers to be able to make a living that don’t necessarily include something that is putting our communities in conflict,” she said. “I feel bad for farmers who are in a financial situation that is dire this year. But I also feel bad for the people who are going to live downwind and downstream of this.”

Tack, from the DNR, said he understood people on both sides were unhappy with the DNR, but appreciated their thoughts on the project.

“That’s what we need right now, across Iowa, is that sort of passion about water quality issues,” he said.

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