Commission considers water quality proposal

DES MOINES – The commission that oversees water quality regulations in Iowa plans to consider adoption of a new rule next month that critics say is too friendly to livestock farms.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission has scheduled a vote on Aug. 19 on the rule that aligns state regulations with those imposed by the federal Clean Water Act.

The rule primarily gives the DNR authority to require permits that strictly regulate manure handling for livestock farms shown to discharge manure into waterways.

Environmental groups said the rule is too weak and gives the DNR too much discretion to interpret federal law.

“We demand stronger clean water rules that truly crack down on factory farm manure pollution by forcing one of Iowa’s most polluting industries to either play by tougher environmental standards or get shut down and put out of business,” said Lori Nelson, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement from Bayard.

The group calls for a three strikes provision that would close operations if they spill manure three times and a requirement that all farms with spills get a federal clean water permit.

The nine-member governor-appointed Environmental Protection Commission is responsible for approving environmental protection regulations the DNR must implement. DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said the commission is prohibited by state law from passing livestock farm regulations more stringent than federal law. Some of Iowa CCI’s demands are broad changes that they should take to lawmakers, he said.

“It’s something the Legislature really needs to address and see if it’s what the people of Iowa want,” Baskins said.

The proposed rule would satisfy an agreement DNR signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2013, he said. The deal was struck after the EPA threatened to take over federal Clean Water Act enforcement if Iowa officials didn’t step up its efforts. That action was prompted by a lawsuit filed in 2007 by Iowa CCI, the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, and others asking the EPA to push Iowa to improve livestock farm oversight.

The DNR documents an average of 50 manure spills a year in Iowa, and in recent years the state has seen high levels of nitrate and other contaminants due in part to manure and crop fertilizer washing into streams.

The 20 million hogs on Iowa farms produce an estimated 10 billion gallons of manure a year. Farmers also handle waste generated by 60 million chickens, 9 million turkeys and 4 million cows. Much of the manure is stored in large basins and periodically applied to farm fields as fertilizer. Many spills occur when the basins leak, pumps fail or pipes clog.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation said the DNR is doing what’s required to comply with EPA demands.

Iowa already has a number of requirements more strict than federal regulations, said Christina Gruenhagen, the group’s government relations counsel.

“We have construction standards and permit setback distances federal regulations don’t have,” she said. “We have manure application certification, so Iowa already goes above and beyond federal regulations.”

She said a provision Iowa CCI seeks that would have all large livestock farms get a water permit has been struck down by federal courts in at least two cases.

The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, which represents 10,000 members, said farmers will abide by the rule as long as each farm’s individual circumstances are considered and rules aren’t applied in a one-size-fits-all fashion. The DNR, under its agreement with the EPA, will within five years inspect about 8,500 farms, including those with more than 1,000 cows or 2,500 hogs, and smaller farms if they have a record of spills or are near rivers or streams.

“Our producers are open and willing to have these inspections done and to learn of ways they can improve their operation and go from there,” said cattlemen’s association spokeswoman Justine Stevenson. “They’re keeping an open mindset to it which is something that we would like the environmentalists to do as well.”