Pilot Editorial

Monday, August 4, 2003

No wind situation

There are days when it isn't much fun to sit on a local government board. Tuesday will be one of those for the members of the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors.

Suddenly there is controversy around the big Rembrandt Enterprises chicken-and-egg operation as it seeks a permit to expand after a couple years of operation, and the supervisors have only a shaky, fledgling "master matrix" program with which to answer.

On Tuesday, they will vote on whether to recommend to the DNR to approve the expansion permit or to ask the state to reject it. This is the first use of the master matrix scoring system here, and no one really knows whether the state will pay any attention to local opinion or not.

Still, this complicated matrix is the one tool that's been allowed for a sliver of local control in a sweeping sea of livestock confinements across the state, and BV County is wise to try to use it judiciously.

Supervisors can't win here, of course. Vote against Rembrandt Enterprises, and they will appear not to support agribusiness development and all the jobs and tax money it brings to their county.

Vote for it, and they will appear to be ignoring the concerns of rural neighbors, who cite manure and odor problems, water problems and even say they've seen dead chickens in the manure from the plant.

"It's driving people out who have lived here for years," one woman said at a recent public hearing.

Trouble is, odor isn't an easy thing to measure objectively. One man's stink may be what ex-governor Terry Branstad used to term "the smell of money" to another. Undoubtedly, there must be some smell involved with such a large bird operation, and true, those living very close may find property values down, at least if they chose to sell on a residential basis.

The DNR has started doing some odor testing around the state this season, using new handheld devices called olfactometers. Perhaps such testing should be done around Rembrandt Enterprises before the state gives final consideration to an expansion permit.

As much as we have to sympathize with the plight of the neighbors, the supervisors will have to vote on the facts.

The facts are that only three public contacts have been made with the DNR in the first few years of Rembrandt Enterprises operation, and none were considered to be violations of law or policy. There had been no prior serious protest to the county.

The facts are that Rembrandt Enterprises has operated in a professional manner in the county, and as far as we are aware, followed the laws and guidelines that apply to them.

And the fact is that in the master matrix scoring of the county's own sanitarian, Rembrandt Enterprises has passed with at least 40 points to spare. It's hard to see how supervisors could vote against the application, when their own local scoring system supports it.

Neighbors should take their valid environmental concerns to the DNR, and push for that odor measurement. That's where the only real muscle in these decisions exists, matrix or not.