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Senator’s call about relative’s feedlot riles environmentalists
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Senator’s call about relative’s feedlot riles environmentalists

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State Sen. Dan Zumbach, a Republican who represents Buchanan, Delaware, Jones, and Linn counties, spoke to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon on behalf of his son-in-law, whose family was seeking approval to open an 11,600-head cattle feedlot outside of Zumbach’s legislative district.

Environmental groups see this conversation — documented in an Oct. 2, 2020, email obtained through an open records request — as evidence Supreme Beef’s plan was approved behind closed doors, rendering moot a public hearing and public comments.

“This was a done deal the minute the application was submitted,” Jessica Mazour, conservation program coordinator with the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “We’re sick and tired of our state elected and appointed officials colluding with the factory farm industry to make sure they get what they want.”

The Iowa DNR last fall approved Supreme Beef LLC, owned by Mike Walz, Dean Walz and Jared Walz, for a cattle feedlot with 2,750 cows near Monona. That was less than one-fourth the 11,600 head Supreme Beef had proposed for the facility. But later, a revised nutrient management plan for the full number of cattle submitted in February was approved April 2.

Emails about feedlot approval

On Oct. 2, the deadline for approval of Supreme Beef’s first nutrient management plan, a flurry of emails passed between Iowa DNR officials and Becky Sexton, a consultant with Twin Lakes Environmental and wife of state Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, who was preparing Supreme Beef’s plan. These emails were included in 801 emails The Gazette received earlier this month from the state through an open records request.

At 12:38 p.m., Becky Sexton wrote to Brian Jergenson, senior environmental specialist in the Iowa DNR’s Manchester field office:

“We were thinking of changing from 11,600 to 8000 head for the current time. Would that be permissible?”

Jergenson responded three minutes later: “It wouldn't change the situation. Everything over 999 head cattle in open feedlot needs an NMP.”

At 4:02 p.m., Sexton wrote back to Jergenson:

“After your phone call earlier today to advise we had two options, either withdrawal our application or be denied by the DNR, Jared Walz and I have had many lengthy discussions,” Sexton wrote. “He ultimately spoke with his state senator, Dan Zumbach, who made a call to Kayla Lyons about this site. She said he could apply for 2750 head at this time and apply for the remaining number in the future. How long must we wait to apply for the remaining 8,900 head?”

There is no response to this email included in the records provided by the Iowa DNR.

Zumbach, Lyon respond

Zumbach acknowledged to The Gazette he did have a conversation with Lyon about Supreme Beef. Jared Walz is the husband of Zumbach’s daughter, Chelsea, and father of Zumbach’s grandchildren.

“Since I sit on the Natural Resources Committee I’m in communication with the DNR and I simply asked Kayla to get the right folks in contact with Supreme Beef so they could continue working through the permitting process,” Zumbach said.

The Gazette pointed out that emails showed Sexton already was in contact with the Iowa DNR staff who approve or deny nutrient management plans, and asked who Zumbach considered to be the “right” people to answer the company’s questions.

“I don’t know the players at all,” he said. “That’s not part of my concern or my responsibility. I simply asked the director if she could help this constituent get to the right folks.”

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The Walzes do not live in Zumbach’s District 48, nor is the Supreme Beef site in the district. Zumbach said that is “irrelevant.”

“When anyone from the state of Iowa calls you, we represent all of Iowa when we’re down here (Des Moines), not just our districts,” he said.

Zumbach, who has served in the Iowa Senate since 2013 and voted with other senators to approve Lyon’s appointment in February 2020, said he doesn’t know whether Lyon followed up with her staff about the Supreme Beef proposal.

Lyon, who was “made aware” of Walz’s relationship to Zumbach, said she did speak with her staff about the proposed feedlot.

“Director Lyon contacted field office staff to inquire about the timeline for completion of staff review of the application,” Iowa DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said in an email this week.

“The call between Director Lyon and Sen. Zumbach was an inquiry regarding the timeline of action on the permit. Director Lyon made no decisions nor was this call a negotiation between Director Lyon and Sen. Zumbach over the approval of the application. DNR technical staff determined, based on the approved fields in the submitted application, the eligible number of cattle for approval.”

'Not a public opinion project’

The Supreme Beef project, which will be one of the largest animal feeding operations in the state, has been criticized by community members since 2017 because it is located on porous topography and in the watershed of Bloody Run Creek, a trout stream listed as an Outstanding Iowa Water.

The Iowa DNR received dozens of emails in opposition to the project, The Gazette review showed.

“Please do not approve of a corporation that would likely ruin of one of IA’s premier trout waters,” Richard Kaufman, of Dubuque, wrote March 1. “This stream has been featured in national publications devoted to fly fishing. I can’t believe that this is even under consideration.”

Citing strong labor market and recovering economy, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced she would end federal pandemic unemployment benefits effective June 12.

Zach Halverson, 36, of Lansing, wrote as a “kayaker and amateur trout angler in NE Iowa” dismayed by changes to waterways in Iowa’s Driftless region. “One more commercial farming operation won't change the area significantly for the better, but it could change it significantly for the worse,” he said.

Emails show Iowa DNR staff answered questions for Sexton and made recommendations, such as removing outdated soil tests before submitting plan revisions. Jergenson said it’s normal for the state staff to help feedlot owners and consultants.

“Part of our goal is to help people comply with the rules of the state,” he said. “We work hand and hand with consultants in regulated communities so they can be in line with the regulations.”

Jergenson said he knew Walz was Zumbach’s son-in-law, but did not feel pressured by Sexton’s email. He said Iowa DNR management did not lean on him to approve the nutrient management plan for 11,600 cows.

Although public opinion, both in emails and at a March 2 public hearing, was squarely against the feedlot, Jergenson said state officials may consider only information about whether the plan meets Iowa DNR procedures and requirements.

“This project is not a public opinion project,” he said. “We evaluate it in accordance with the rules of the state. We read the comments and tried to apply them to our two criteria.”

The Sierra Club and the Iowa Environmental Council allege the Iowa DNR didn’t follow these rules when approving the plan. In a 12-page petition appealing the decision, the groups claim the feedlot will produce far more manure than its plan specifies, the facility has the wrong kind of manure basin and fields where manure will be applied have too much erosion for that purpose.

The Environmental Protection Commission denied the petition Monday, opening the door for a lawsuit.

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