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Iowa Governor 2010: Who Will Be the Worst Environmental Governor of the 21st Century?

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A few weeks ago Iowa's Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad opened his state's longest festering political sore when he responded to a question asked by a family farmer on a campaign stop if, as governor, he would improve the state's regulatory policies regarding industrial animal confinements.

According to the Iowa Independent, Branstad told Webster county farmer Gene Brown, "Local control is something that won't ever happen in Iowa," speaking of the long fought battle over the siting of factory farms within the state's 99 counties. For veteran political observers Branstad's response came as no surprise. During his four terms as Iowa governor from 1983 to 1999, Branstad was widely known as an enthusiastic cheerleader for industrial agriculture, even going so far as welcoming the now infamous egg recall giant and "habitual violator" Jack DeCoster to the state with open arms in the late 1980s.

After this early foray into supporting factory farms, Branstad personally oversaw the passage of one of the state's most controversial laws, House File 519, which he signed in 1995, stripping all zoning authority regarding industrial animal confinements from local elected officials; in Iowa's case, county board of supervisors. The passage of this bill opened the floodgates for factory hog farms like those built by Jack DeCoster to spring up all over Iowa and forced more than 20,000 Iowa hog farmers off the land. Since 1994, the year prior to the passage of H.F. 519, Iowa has lost nearly 72% of the state's hog farmers, as the number has dropped from 29,000 to 8,300 today, increasing consolidation in hog production and decimating rural communities, as the farmers that small towns depended upon for main street business survival are now gone.

Since the law's passage, local control has remained a leading hot button issue in Iowa politics, featuring prominently in political races for the past 15 years. With the proliferation of factory farms in Iowa, our state's water quality has deteriorated to the point of being the worst in the nation as more than 542 lakes, rivers and streams are listed on the state's impaired waterways. As a result of this and the ensuing battles in rural communities, more than 64% of Iowans favor local control according to a 2007 Des Moines Register poll.

In 2006, Democrats won control of all branches of government in Iowa, the house, senate and governorship, partially on the promise of local control and better environmental standards. Two major battles that flaired up in the summer of 2006, in Clear Lake and Lake Okoboji, helped shine a spotlight on the issue and united both rural and urban voters who had finally had enough of hog confinements being built everywhere across the state with little oversight.

Since 2007, the issue has languished in the Iowa house and senate as Democratic leadership has worked behind the scenes to kill any progress on environmental legislation. For a variety of reasons, including campaign donations and cozy relations with agribiz lobbyists, they are just as beholden to agribussiness as the Republican leadership they replaced.

Unfortunately, in 2010, the Democrat's stalling on this issue is having a major impact on the governor's race. Even though Governor Chet Culver ran on local control in 2006, many hardcore Democratic and rural activists are fed up with the lack of progress on environmental issues. In addition, thousands of Independents and Republicans, like my parents, who voted for Culver the first time have lost faith that he has the backbone to pass a bill if he wins reelection.

As soon as Branstad made his statement disparaging local control, Culver was quick to reassert his support of the issue. But Democrats want proof. Culver's immediate post election appointments, much like President Obama's, signaled that while he could talk change, but was more willing to cozy up to power than reward his base.

Many still haven't forgiven Culver for picking Patty Judge, the former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Iowa state senator as his running mate. Not only did Judge flip-flop on the issue as a state senator, voting to repeal local control along with fellow state senator Tom Vilsack, now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, but she then courted Farm Bureau and Pork Producer donations in her for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. For many loyal Democrats, Judge's inclusion on the ticket is still a very bitter pill to swallow.

Four years later, Culver has found himself in the race of a lifetime, desperately scrambling to catch up to former Gov. Branstad in the polls.

Only recently Culver has begun to come around to standing up for the environment, making claims that the state needs to create better regulations regarding fertilizer to better protect the environment, something he agrees the current voluntary standards have not accomplished.

In an extreme response, Branstad has said he will review "all regulations" that could impact businesses and would streamline "agricultural permitting as an incentive for agribusiness in Iowa," saying in a press release that: "excessive environmental litigation adds risks and costs for production agriculture and hinders growth and job creation."

Apparently Branstad, like many Republicans, have not yet learned the great lesson that massive deregulation should have taught politicians from the recent collapses of Wall Street and the auto and home mortgage industries. Unfortunately, like the millions of Americans who now have lost their jobs or their homes as a result of the deregulatory mantra, Iowans have been forced to lose their environmental heritage in the past several decades as politicians have worked to do away with responsible environmental regulations, making compliance voluntary instead.

Many Iowans find Branstad's promise to continue this trend, despite Iowa's current record as having some of the most polluted rivers and streams in the nation, alarming. According to the Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa has 42 of the top polluting150 watersheds in the Mississippi River basin that create the Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone" and Iowans are looking for leadership in solving the state's environmental problems.

Such extreme positions on agriculture and the environment among candidates, especially a former governor, have many in Iowa concerned about the state's future, leading many to believe that the worst environmental governor of Iowa's past is poised to become the worst environmental governor of Iowa's future.

If the idea of environmental stewardship is something that is passed down as a generational or familial heritage, one has to be alarmed with Terry Branstad's current positions in relation to the notorious history of his younger brother, Monty Branstad, a North central Iowa farmer who has repeatedly been charged with violating Iowa's environmental laws, among other indiscretions.

As recently as May 12 of this year, Monroe "Monty" Branstad, was fined $17,000 for violating Iowa's environmental laws from an August 2008 incident that illegally discharged sweet corn silage leachate from a containment basin on Branstad's 1,100 head cattle operation near Forest City, Iowa.

Arriving on the scene on August 29, 2008, officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources discovered the pollution had spread along more than 16.1 miles of the Winnebago River, and killed more than 31,000 fish, which the state valued at $63,022.33. At the time, the August 2008 spill at Branstad's cattle farm ranked among the 40 deadliest in Iowa's history since 1995.

Unfortunately for Iowa, environmental violations were nothing new for Branstad's brother.

A quick perusal of court documents on Internet found that the former governor's brother has been either sited or notified of possible "open burn and waste disposal" violations multiple times, including a 2004 incident that induced a "large explosion followed by heavy black smoke for 45-50 minutes". Branstad was forced to pay a $4,500 fine for this offense, which came on the heels of an August 2003 open burning violation, once again including a "large explosion" was followed by "heavy black smoke." Monty has also been sited for similar violations by the state of Iowa in 1987 and 1989.

Since then, Monty has been involved several different lawsuits and a questionable case dealing with 1980's farm loans, which then Gov. Branstad's former top aid intervened to clear up.

Clearly Terry Branstad is not responsible for his brother's sins against the environment or otherwise, but in a political race where the former governor with a long track record of not protecting the environment has now proposed to further expose the state's environment to harm through more irresponsible policies, Iowans and those that care about the environment everywhere should be aware of the long and convoluted history that Branstad potentially brings to the office.

The real question, beyond Terry Branstad's insistence of continued deregulation of environmental standards is why would a candidate advocate these extreme positions in the face of such evidence of their failure and how would Terry Branstad as governor deal with his own brother's possible future violations?

It's clear that there's a long track record here, and voters everywhere deserve an answer. Iowans can no longer afford to have a governor, or any elected official, partying like it's 1999 on the environment.

It's time that all candidates look to find real and lasting solutions and abandon short-sighted environmental policies that view natural resources as expendable. Someone should tell Branstad it's not only bad for Iowa, but it's bad for business.

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