An Iowa Democrat who has been endorsed by Al Gore as an “environmental champion” is also the owner of an abandoned coal mine that has been the source of toxic runoff into local Iowa waterways.
Patty Judge, the Democratic Party’s hope to unseat Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa, spent six years as a state senator working on environmental issues, eight years as Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, and four as Iowa’s lieutenant governor. She then became chair of America’s Renewable Future, an Iowa environmental PAC.
All that time, Judge never mentioned that her land in Monroe County contains an abandoned plot that was “left in an unreclaimed condition” after it was strip mined in the 1960s.
Judge has used the Monroe County property to exhibit her knowledge of "conservation measures" that farmers can take to protect the soil and water. In May, she invited attendees of a candidate forum to take a tour of the plot after touting her environmental record.
“Well I think I have a great environmental record, and if any of you want to come to Monroe County with me we’ll get on the 4-wheel Ranger and I’ll show you what a southern Iowa pasture farm looks like and show you the conservation measures that have been taken on that farm to protect the soil and the water and the things that started with my husband’s father and that we are continuing today,” Judge said.
The farm includes a 41-acre plot that was left badly scarred by strip mining, a mining method that involves removing layers of earth to uncover deposits of coal buried deep below the surface.
Judge became the owner of the land following the death of her husband’s father in 1987. Official assessments of the land by the Iowa Department of Agriculture show that Judge did little to mitigate degradation and increasing toxicity levels over the three decades the abandoned strip mine land was under her ownership.
The assessments were conducted in coordination with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which was created in 1977 to reclaim and repair land damaged by mining operations.
Dating as far back as 1986, the agency categorized the abandoned Judge mine site as a high priority for reclamation.
Environmental problems identified by the agency in a 1986 assessment, such as acres of spoil area and pits, remained in assessment reports in 1989, 1993, 1995, and 2010. The assessor in 2010 reported that the “majority of [the] site is spoil piles” and that “some are very steep and have large cuts from where the water runs through the site.”
The 2013 assessment, the final one before the federal government began its reclamation of the land, contained a far more detailed explanation of the land.
“The Judge site was strip-mined in the 1960’s and left in an unreclaimed condition,” wrote a state assessor in 2013. “This area consists of barren, toxic spoil piles, dangerous highwall, and polluted water.”
That polluted water was flowing directly into a stream, according to the assessment.
“This project area drains directly into Middle Avery Creek,” it says. “This water is poor quality when it leaves the site due to the acidic spoil that it flows through. Water quality is poor with a pH of around 2.0 and a high iron content.”
A 2.0 pH level far exceeds the level of acidity that will kill fish and is almost on par with battery acid, according to the United States Geological Survey. Water naturally exists at a pH level of 7.0.
Little to no vegetation can survive on the land, according to the assessment.
“The site is mostly bare acidic spoil with small scattered patches of threeawn grass (aristida oligeatha), moss, multiflora rose, and common agricultural type weeds,” it says.
It was not until the land reached that level of degradation that the federal government began a reclamation project on the Judge plot. It spent one year and hundreds of thousands of dollars reshaping and then seeding the 41-acre plot, according to state records.
In November 2013, the Kinman Company was awarded a $523,683 contract to work on the Judge site. A separate company, Shive Hattery Architechture, has also been paid over $100,000 for work on the site since 2013.
Agricultural experts in Iowa say that the Judge family could have taken simple steps to minimize the damage long before the government stepped in.
Nick Hunt, who operates a large farm in southern Iowa, said that it is standard practice in Iowa to make sure that toxic water is not running off of one’s property.
“As a large scale cattle farmer I have to follow certain environmental regulations, one of which is that no water can come into my lot from an outside area,” Hunt said. “I also have to capture all water that lands on my feedlot and keep it on the premises.”
Judge could have used limestone to treat acidic water and could have planted vegetation or built terraces to limit water runoff, according to Hunt.
“If the mine was on my property I would divert any fresh water coming in to the area and then I would divert any runoff to a holding basin to where I could decontaminate it,” Hunt said. “I’ve seen operations elsewhere where landowners have taken care of the ground following coal mining and it is now used to support cattle—it can be done.”
The Judge campaign did not respond to questions about the abandoned mining site.
Judge has been talking about these types of activities on the campaign trail to bolster her resumé as an advocate for improving water quality in Iowa.
“There are a lot of things that farmers can do today to stop the flow of water,” Judge told the Des Moines Register.
A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Agriculture said that the department had no record that any work had been done on the site prior to reclamation.
Many Iowa Democrats have voiced concerns about Judge’s commitment to environmental issues.
“People do not forget how bad Patty Judge has been on rural issues, on environmental issues, and on agriculture,” Ed Fallon, a prominent Iowa liberal, told the Des Moines Register. “She’s been shilling for some of the same interest groups that Democrats at the grassroots level are constantly fighting against.”
Fred Hubbell, a major Democratic donor in Iowa who supported Judge’s primary opponent Rob Hogg, said that Judge’s failure as a water quality advocate was the reason he opposed her.
“One of the key differences between the two of them is on water quality issues and environmental issues,” Hubbell said. “Rob has a much stronger record than she does, particularly on water quality.”
Grassley, Judge’s Republican opponent, chose not to comment on this story given the silence from the Judge campaign.
“Water quality is of great concern to Iowans and these reports are disturbing, but we will withhold comment until we hear an explanation from Patty Judge,” said Robert Haus, campaign manager for Grassley.