EPC Votes to Weaken Water Quality Protections

posted on Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Today, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission voted unanimously to adopt changes to the state’s clean water anti-degradation standards will likely lead to more pollution and undermine the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

In an unusual move, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources recommended emergency implementation of the rule change. The amended guidelines are slated to go into effect on Friday, August 12.

Representatives from the Council, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and several other allies including Iowa Rivers Revival and the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club attended today's meeting to state their concerns, reiterating that the proposed changes would represent a big step backward in the state’s clean water efforts. We previously spoke against the proposed changes at the Administrative Rules Review Committee meeting in July, the public hearing in June and the EPC meeting in May, and submitted written comments outlining our concerns. Both ELPC and the Council have suggested a stakeholder process to develop further guidance to address other stakeholder concerns without weakening existing clean water protections.

“Iowa’s anti-degradation standards were developed over the course of nearly two years with input from environmental, business, industry and utility groups,” said IEC Executive Director Ralph Rosenberg. “As a result, the standards were strong, but reasonable, and balanced economic and environmental concerns. That balance has shifted.”

“DNR has made no effort to bring stakeholders together to address these changes, and as a result, the final rules have significant problems,” added Josh Mandelbaum, a staff attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines office.

In March, a district court judge sided with the IEC and ELPC in a case that compels DNR to appropriately enforce Iowa’s anti-degradation standards – a pillar of the Clean Water Act designed to prevent unnecessary new pollution. 

Per the ruling, DNR must ensure that projects seeking permits to add new pollution to a waterway have considered and appropriately accounted for the environmental benefits of less polluting alternatives, and that less polluting alternatives cannot be eliminated based on cost alone.

In response, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities and Iowa League of Cities filed a petition for rule-making, and DNR recommended changes based on the petition. The amendment removes the provision requiring consideration of environmental benefits before eliminating less polluting alternatives, replacing the existing case-by-case approach with a one-size-fits-all approach based on cost alone. The change opens the door for Environmental Protection Agency intervention.

ELPC and IEC were instrumental in shaping Iowa’s anti-degradation standards. Both groups have regularly filed public comments and met with DNR officials about the proper consideration of Iowa’s anti-degradation standards since 2013. DNR’s lack of action on these concerns led to the Council’s decision to have ELPC file a petition for judicial review on its behalf in the state District Court. That victory was the first legal case addressing the enforcement of Iowa’s anti-degradation standards since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the standards in 2014.

The EPC’s vote in favor of the petition for rule change will head to the Administrative Rules Review Committee of the Iowa Legislature for approval. EPA will also need to approve these rule changes. The Council is committed to preserving Iowa's anti-degradation standards, and will continue to work to uphold these important protections to advance clean water in Iowa.

  1. anti-degradation
  2. water quality