The supreme beef feedlot west of Monona, Iowa on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

A Polk County judge has reversed the decision of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to permit an 11,600-head cattle feedlot in northeast Iowa.

Friday’s ruling in the lawsuit by the Sierra Club of Iowa and Trout Unlimited against the DNR and Supreme Beef says the state agency used “illogical interpretations and applications” to approve a nutrient management plan for Supreme Beef.

The ruling sends the case back to the DNR for reconsideration.

“It is odd to approve a manure storage system that is banned from confinement operations due to the danger of spills and leaks into the porous bedrock,” Judge Scott Rosenberg wrote. “To approve it for an open feedlot in the same terrain is particularly odd when the only way this type of manure handling system gets built is if the agency approves it.”

Supreme Beef, near Monona, is in the watershed of Bloody Run, one of Iowa’s most prized trout streams, and sits atop porous bedrock where a manure spill could easily contaminate groundwater.

Bloody Run creek west of Monona, Iowa on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

The Sierra Club sued the DNR in September 2021, alleging the agency approved the feedlot’s nutrient manage plan (NMP) with incorrect calculations of how much manure could be safely applied to nearby farm fields. The Sierra Club also alleged the DNR was applying varying legal standards to the operation when it benefited the feedlot.

At a hearing Jan. 20, Assistant Iowa Attorney General David Steward, representing the DNR, said the agency determined Supreme Beef’s 39 million gallon manure retention basin was “more than adequate” for safely storing manure at the site.

A disputed factor is whether the Iowa DNR should have approved manure sample calculations from a smaller beef slaughtering facility as a proxy for what Supreme Beef would be producing. Steward said the state checked to see if the nutrient levels in the manure sample submitted were similar to other cattle feedlots.

Rosenberg’s ruling said he did not think the manure samples from Upper Iowa Beef, a slaughtering facility, could be used as a stand-in for a cattle feedlot.

“ … Use of UIB’s manure sample was incorrect even though samples from other open feedlot operations and a more recent sample from Supreme Beef had similar concentrations as the UIB sample,” he wrote.

Another problem Rosenberg noted with the manure calculations was whether Supreme Beef would house mature cattle or finishing cattle, which produce different amounts of manure.

“The switch from the mature cattle manure volume table estimate to the finishing value after two failed NMPs barely registered for IDNR staff, who either thought Supreme Beef already was a feedlot for finishing cattle rather than mature cattle, or assumed the operation changed between the prior NMPs and the February 2021 NMP,” he wrote.

The ruling noted one of Supreme Beef’s owners, Jared Walz, is the son-in-law of Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, who intervened on the feedlot’s behalf with DNR Director Kayla Lyon.

“This NMP for 11,600 cattle was initially going to be denied by IDNR over these concerns; however, after discussions with IDNR, it was determined that Supreme Beef could withdraw this application for 11,600 cattle,” Rosenberg wrote.

“Supreme Beef could then submit another NMP for 2,700 cattle. This was suggested by IDNR Director Kayla Lyons after a phone call with State Senator Dan Zumbach, Jared Walz’ father-in-law. Supreme Beef submitted the new NMP for 2,700 cattle in October 2020. In February 2021, Supreme Beef filed the final NMP for the remaining number of cattle.”

Wally Taylor, attorney for the Sierra Club, said the group was pleased with the ruling.

“We hope that the DNR got the message that its discretion is not unlimited and that it must follow its own rules,” he said in an email.

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