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We must advocate and litigate our rights to a healthy environment

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We must advocate and litigate our rights to a healthy environment

Mar 30, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Larry Stone
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We must advocate and litigate our rights to a healthy environment
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Trout fishermen love Bloody Run Creek, whose waters are threatened by a massive cattle feedlot. (Photo by Larry Stone)

Iowa’s environmental movement might be compared with the civil rights efforts of the 1950s and 1960s, with the general public gradually coming to the realization that they have a fundamental constitutional right to clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment.

Citizens are, indeed, being affected by an issue once dismissed as somebody else’s problem. And these realizations could bring agitation and push-back that ultimately results in major changes.

That’s the premise of Iowa City attorney James Larew, who is assisting citizens who are forming a new nonprofit environmental organization that will advocate and litigate for protection of Iowa’s natural resources.

We must advocate and litigate our rights to a healthy environment
James Larew (Photo courtesy of The Gazette)

Larew, in 2012, representing Muscatine citizens and the nonprofit Clean Air Muscatine filed a class action lawsuit, and parallel actions in Iowa District Court and before the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), aimed at significantly reducing air pollution generated by Grain Processing Corporation (GPC).

As a result of the combined actions, GPC reportedly invested $100 million in new cleaner-air technologies, and paid about $50 million in damages to citizens who had alleged that they had been harmed by the corporation’s air pollution. Prior to that, Larew had served on the staff of the late Sen. John Culver in the 1970s, and as a top aide to Gov. Chet Culver from 2007 to 2011.

Recent controversies have made Iowans more aware of environmental problems, Larew noted. A massive cattle feedlot, Supreme Beef LLC, was built in the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, a state-designated “Outstanding Iowa Water,” starting in 2017. The operators paid several fines for water quality violations during construction of the facility.

The owners also were required to develop a new plan to handle manure, after a successful lawsuit by the Iowa Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited challenging the Iowa DNR’s approval of an initial “nutrient management plan.” An Iowa District Court judge ruled that the DNR had unlawfully approved the plan.

The facility now houses more than 8,000 cattle, but Larew, on behalf of the Committee to Save Bloody Run, has launched another legal challenge, this one contesting the validity of a permit the DNR issued to allow the feedlot to use more than 20 million gallons of water per year.

Coincidentally, a report showing Iowa with the second-highest cancer rate of any state in the nation has prompted Iowans to wonder whether chemicals from industrial agriculture could be part of the reason, Larew said. We are developing a new shared cultural language that “it’s just not right to pollute,” he declared.

Larew compared Iowans’ awakening awareness of the state’s environmental problems – including laws and power structures that lead to contamination of our water and air – with the Jim Crow south after World War II.

In that era, returning Black soldiers started social hall and church basement conversations about civil rights. That led to events such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus; lunch counter sit-ins; and the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Those actions captured the attention and imagination of a newly aware public, resulting in the civil rights movement that changed our very society.

Iowans’ conversations about our poor water quality and high cancer rates are building support for enforcing current environmental laws — even if the present political climate prevents enacting new and better regulations, Larew said. “The energy is there … it’s kind of an electricity you can feel,” he said. “People suddenly find that there’s a community … a new community.”

Thus, he’s proposing a new environmental nonprofit with “a sharper edge and a narrower focus.” The group would file litigation aimed at forcing polluters and government agencies to recognize people’s legal rights to a clean environment.

Larew conceded that we cannot ignore “powerful forces” — such as industrial agriculture — that may resist efforts to tighten environmental protections. And those forces are applying pressure against scientists and politicians who may challenge the polluters’ status quo.

“I’m waiting for the breakout moment when someone says the truth out loud and then the public comes and supports it,” Larew said. “I believe that providing a platform for some of Iowa’s most thoughtful and effective advocates for environmental improvements will have a positive impact on our state.”

Larew is planning a series of informational meetings in northeast Iowa in the next few weeks. For more information, contact him at [email protected].

Larry Stone’s column is republished from his blog, “Listening to the Land,” on Substack. It is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and the authors’ blogs to support their work.