Spring is finally here: Trees are greening, flowers are blooming and the air is filled with the sweet fragrances of lilacs, fresh mowed grass and, well, something that is not so sweet. We first noticed it years ago driving across Iowa heading home to Nebraska on Interstate 80. It was summer and with no AC, we rolled the car windows down. The drive was mostly pleasant, but now and then the wind blew in an odor that could only have come from a farm animal operation. Since then, problems of not only objectionable odors from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), but also water pollution and more have become major issues of contention in Iowa. But what is the connection between Iowa’s pollution and Appalachian poverty?
As a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, I spent much time on research in the eastern part of the state — the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My impressions of the region ranged from uplifting beauty of tree-covered hills reflecting colors of the season, to depressing gloom in the depths of a valley town dominated by sprawling mine structures or worse, mountainside gashes from strip mining. But any day, sunny or gloomy, the presence of poverty was never far removed.
Several theories for widespread, persistent Appalachian poverty have been proffered. The popular culture of poverty theory contends poverty is a pervasive trait among the mountain people, passed down through generations. But Appalachian poverty has identifiable historical origins and is facilitated by structural factors beyond an individual’s or family’s control.
Early Appalachian settlers were strongly independent. They cherished their freedom and subsistence lifestyle, deriving sustenance from the forest, along with raising a few animals and a garden. They were little aware of the wealth around them or in the ground below, although others were. Lumber, land and mining companies moved in to dispossess the mountain people of first, the magnificent stands of virgin timber and later, the abundant coal. Recognizing the importance of land ownership to mountain families, coal companies did not try to buy their land, but only the mineral rights to the land. From the mountain people’s perspective, the coal was far underground, and any mining would little affect their own land-use rights or control.
Enter Iowa Supreme Court Justice John Dillon. In 1868, Dillon sat on the court that adjudicated the case of the Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad bringing suit to lay tracks through the streets of Clinton. The court’s decision favored the railroad, and Justice Dillon wrote the opinion. One of our nation’s founding governing principles is federalism. Federalism embraces separate levels of government, from local to national, with each level focused on what it does best. Disdaining federalism, Dillon considered local governments political subdivisions of state governments. Local governments owe their existence to and have only the powers granted to them by the state government. Chartered by the state, only the state could stop the railroad from building a line through one of Clinton’s streets. Christened the “Dillon Rule,” it was later supported in another case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
With the Dillon Rule, coal companies faced fewer legal obstacles to mine coal. Coal companies would not need to legally fight every land owner or community to gain access above-ground to their underground mineral rights. They simply used their vast financial resources to lobby and otherwise influence state legislatures to pass laws that left individuals, families and communities powerless to defend their own lands and livelihoods.
Scroll forward nearly a century and CAFOs are spreading rapidly across Iowa. With growth in number and size of these operations, concerns arose about water pollution. Complaints about the impact of odors and toxic air emissions on quality of life and health also increased. The state legislature set regulations for CAFOs, including manure handling and minimum distance from residential areas, but many rural Iowans considered the regulations inadequate.
In response, Humboldt County enacted regulations stricter than the state’s policies on several issues, including groundwater protection policies and toxic air emissions. Humboldt County enacted these regulations under the auspices of home rule (legislated into the Iowa Code in 1968), which provides that communities cannot set standards or requirements lower than state law but are free to be more stringent unless specifically prohibited by state law.
Humboldt County soon was taken to court over its regulations and discovered the Dillon Rule is alive and well. In 1998, Iowa’s Supreme Court struck down several of the county’s ordinances, including those addressing groundwater protection and toxic air emissions. The court ruled the county’s ordinances were irreconcilable with existing legal standards and state law delegated exclusive jurisdiction for animal waste treatment to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
In other words, owing to Iowa Supreme Court’s precedent ruling more than a century ago, like families and communities in Appalachia who were powerless when coal corporations ravished the land to mine coal, families and communities in Iowa are powerless when confronting big corporate agriculture over CAFO water and air pollution. In this traditional farm state, many state politicians view CAFOs as an economic development strategy and salvation for economic problems in the farm sector. Unfortunately, potential indirect consequences of unbridled CAFO proliferation include fewer and larger farm operations, outmigration of population, lower quality of life, decreased property values, greater pollution remediation costs and adverse health impacts. Much like Appalachia, enforcing Dillon’s rule results in an economically, socially and culturally poorer rural Iowa.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.