Ag Digester

1/14/22 Ag digester op-ed:

            I was a member of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources committee that was writing draft regulations for industrial agricultural digesters. Although called Waste Conversion Technology in ag, these were digesters based on wastewater digesters that were part of waste treatment processes.

            Apparently when the Iowa Legislature found out the DNR was writing these regulations, they passed a law stating no regulations for these ag digesters could be written. The DNR then disbanded the committee I was a member of.

            Imagine my surprise when a couple of years later, the Legislature passed a law that said that ag digesters could be used in conjunction with hog confinements. In articles supporting this move, people were stating that the wastewater industry has used digesters for decades with success.

            Well yes, but those digesters were a part of a treatment process, were run by licensed operators, had to follow design standards, had DNR regulations that they had to adhere to, and also had to follow federal OSHA occupational safety and health regulations which included education and safety equipment. Remember, the Iowa Legislature said that ag digesters could not have DNR regulations applied to them, and in Iowa, OSHA does not regulate agriculture.

            The Legislature did not stop there. They also changed the definition of digesters in agriculture to include anaerobic lagoons and earthen storage basins, which are nothing like wastewater digesters. By calling anaerobic lagoons and earthen storage basins ag digesters, the Legislature also got rid of the regulated separation distances that covered lagoons and basins.

            This ag digester legislative sleight-of-hand is similar to the sleight-of-hand that happened with hog confinements, which ag digesters are supposed to enhance. In passing the law which directed the DNR to regulate hog confinements, the Legislature only wrote language which allowed the water pollution avenue to be regulated, and not the other pollution avenue, the air avenue. Because of this legislative omission, it is illegal in Iowa to regulate air pollution which has been coming out of hog confinements 24/7/365 for years.

            The manure waste that comes out of the air pollution avenue includes hydrogen-sulfide, ammonia, methane (remember this gas), particulates, antibiotic resistant organisms, and many other toxins. All of these are harmful to human health and/or the environment, and some actually kill people. These manure constituent parts must be blown or vented out of the confinement or the pigs inside will die.

            So now the Legislature and the Reynolds’ Administration are patting themselves on the back for coming up with the idea that ag digesters can capture methane from hog confinement waste transferred to ag digesters and help in the climate crisis; meanwhile making it illegal to regulate any of the pollutants, including methane, already spewing out of the some 15,000 Iowa hog confinements. Producers don’t have to worry about regulations. And, Iowans will have to pay for these ag digesters through our tax money being used as subsidies. This is a farce.

            Ag digesters are a “climate washing” attempt to mislead the public into thinking hog confinements and ag digesters can help clean up the environment and therefore are a good thing for Iowa. You should ask your state legislators if they voted for these sleight-of-hand laws. Ask them if they understood that it would be illegal to protect us from, and we would have to pay for, harmful pollution as a result of these laws. Or, you might just ask them to go back and change those laws so we are all protected.

Bob Watson

Decorah, IA