DES MOINES — The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission rejected an appeal on Tuesday made by a Tipton pet cemetery owner being fined $10,000 by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for burying hundreds of dead horses over the past several years.
Jon Tack, attorney for the Iowa DNR, said Pet Memories owner Steve Johnson violated state law by burying the bodies of the horses, which are classified as “solid waste” and must be disposed of in a landfill to prevent potential groundwater contamination by the decomposing body.
Johnson’s attorney, Jeff Bittner of Davenport, said the law is vague and defines “solid waste” as unwanted material. He argued the deceased horses are not unwanted but beloved pets that owners want to give a dignified burial.
“People do not pay to bury garbage, refuse or rubbish,” he said. “Similarly, they pay that money to have a deceased loved one disposed with dignity.”
Tack argued Johnson’s business “isn’t the type of pet cemetery you think,” and there aren’t always marked graves and a plot to visit with flowers.
Although the commission denied Johnson’s appeal, commissioners expressed concern current laws and rules regarding the disposal of deceased pets are vague and should be clarified by Iowa lawmakers.
Commissioner Mary Boote said she and other commissioners think the law needs clearer definitions for solid waste, how environmental organizations can better collaborate to address potential violations and what regulations need to be in place as to where pet owners can dispose of their beloved animals.
“The commissioners raised the question, if this is no longer an option, then what options are there?” Boote told The Gazette after the meeting.
She said there is clearly a need for the service Johnson provides, judging by the number of people who have used his business, located west of Tipton. Court documents show Johnson previously testified he buries about 35 horses a year.
Tack said he wasn’t aware of other business like Johnson’s in Iowa that bury dead horses, but that many are cremated. Johnson does offer crematory services and has a license.
Bittner also argued Johnson was being treated unfairly as farmers are allowed to bury a certain quota of animals, including two larger animals such as horses, on their property. Tack said Johnson did not bury the horses where they originated.
Bittner said he wasn’t surprised by the commission’s decision but remained optimistic as several commissioners approached him afterward expressing their intentions about addressing the issue with their legislators.
“It sounds like one way or the other, either through the judicial system or the legislative process, we’re going to wind up with a result that everybody can live with, hopefully in this case,” Bittner said, adding he will plans to appeal at the district court.
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