Senate File 447 restricting nuisance complaints on CAFOs

Carter Howe

Governor Terry Branstad recently signed into law Senate File 447, which limits the amount of compensation that can be received in lawsuits against livestock feeding operations filed by nearby residents.

The law limits the potential compensation plaintiffs can receive for damages caused by the livestock operation to the value of the loss in their property value, compensation for adverse health effects, and compensation for annoyance and loss of comfort, which cannot be more than 1.5 times the value of the other two segments of potential compensation. Additionally, if the lawsuit is won, the law makes it difficult for the plaintiff to sue the livestock producer again even if the plaintiff experiences more adverse effects in the future, although lawsuits would still be allowed if the livestock producer is violating existing laws and regulations.

Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Republican Senator Dan Zumbach, says the bill is meant to spur rural economic development and reward prudent livestock producers by protecting them from frivolous lawsuits. Environmentalists and most Democrats argue that the bill worsens the quality of life of rural Iowans and prevents companies from curbing air and water pollution from livestock production. 

In recently published editorial by the The Des Moines Register staff argued that existing laws are insufficient, which is why affected residents have turned to the courts to attempt to mitigate damage from livestock producers.

Professor Susan Kolbe, biology, agreed, saying this law leaves rural Iowans who live near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) few ways to respond to livestock producers who are worsening their health and quality of life.

“There aren’t that many protections,” Kolbe said. “What has happened lately is a CAFO can now come in to be near your home, and there’s really no limit to the distance as long as they’re under a certain size, and so when they’re under that size, then they can add on, and they don’t have to meet any of the requirements.”

This is especially true because of a loophole in the law that allows CAFOs to expand beyond their original size.

“They slip under the bill with this loophole…they still have to obey the codes of the DNR, but they’re not going to be inspected or anything if they’re under a certain size, so really there’s not a lot you can do to stop it,” Kolbe said.

According to a report by the Iowa Policy Project, asthma rates are much higher among children who live or go to school near CAFOs and properties in their vicinity can lose up to 26 percent of their value.

Republicans, however, maintain that it will help Iowa’s important livestock industry prosper. Republican representative of Boone, IA, Chip Baltimore said that the law is justified because of the importance of livestock production to the state.

“We raise pigs in Iowa,” Baltimore said to The Des Moines Register. “That’s what we do.”

The Agricultural Committee standing behind the bill echoes this desire to ensure the agricultural industry’s continued large profits.

“This is an economic development bill,” Zumbach said.

Instead, Kolbe thinks this legislation is a reaction to recent lawsuits against CAFOs that residents have won, including one in Chester Township in Poweshiek County where a family was awarded upwards of $400,000 in compensation.

“The pork producers…those large corporations…they’re trying to make it so that they can operate in the state without any recourse, and this makes it much easier because one of the only recourses there is if a CAFO comes in that exists anymore is to take them to court for nuisance,” Kolbe said.