EPC denies environmental groups' water quality petition; DNR proposes CAFO siting rules be reviewed in 5-year plan

posted on Tuesday, February 15, 2022 in Water and Land News

Rules to address karst and drinking water to be part of rulemaking review

DES MOINES -- The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission today denied a petition for rules filed by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) last year, ending a six-month review of the request to protect drinking water from feedlots. Instead, the Iowa DNR announced at the hearing that it intends to address the questions raised in the petition as part of a broader rulemaking process on siting issues.

IEC and ELPC filed a petition for rulemaking last year with Iowa’s Environmental Protection Commission to protect drinking water, groundwater, and karst terrain from feedlot pollution. The rules would restrict development of large animal feeding operations in sensitive landscapes. The petition argued that to protect Iowa’s drinking water, the Commission must adopt rules requiring installation of pollution monitoring systems, consideration of unique or special environmental factors in feedlot approvals, and stricter requirements for the approval of new construction.  

"Refusal to adopt these basic protections fails to satisfy the Environmental Protection Commission’s mission to prevent water pollution," said Michael Schmidt, IEC Staff Attorney. "Iowans should have clean drinking water, but they aren’t all getting it with the rules we have in place."  

Drinking water pollution in Iowa is widespread, as documented in a 2019 IEC report, and the pollutants can have serious health effects including liver failure and cancer. Iowans will face hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to treat water across the state as pollution continues to increase.

The Environmental Protection Commission is responsible for rulemaking that applies to the Department of Natural Resources, which regulates feedlots in the state. It rejected a petition filed by IEC and partners last year to overturn approval of the Supreme Beef feedlot

The DNR recommended denying the current petition before the EPC, instead proposing that their agency consider the petition requests as part of the five year review of rules already in progress. Karst includes soluble rocks such as limestone, which connect groundwater and surface water, and are common near the ground surface in Northeast Iowa. 

As a result of the concerns raised in the petition filed last summer, the DNR has committed to reviewing karst siting rules for all livestock facilities. IEC and ELPC remain committed to ensuring the process delivers an outcome that adequately balances interests while protecting Iowa's environment and public health.

"Approving siting of animal feeding operations without thought to the varied nature of Iowa's landscapes, including sensitive areas like karst, has contributed to the increase in pollution of private wells in karst regions and around the state," said Ingrid Gronstal, Water Program Director for IEC. "Rules are put in place to protect the health of Iowans and the health of environment. Iowa DNR and the EPC are tasked with protecting the environment by adopting and enforcing rules that appropriately balance industry interests with the public’s need for a clean, safe, and healthy place to live." 

Unlike confined animal feeding operations, open feedlots are not subject to the master matrix process as part of approval. Schmidt clarified this important difference in response to a question from a commissioner. One commissioner inquired as to why this issue was being raised at this time, to which DNR staff responded that there are open animal operation construction permits for the karst area.

"Records show the explosive growth of CAFOs in Iowa over the past 30 years, and there is no reason to expect construction in karst or other sensitive landscapes in Iowa will stop in the future," noted Schmidt. "These rules can serve to protect sensitive landscapes from new facilities sited on increasingly risky ground." 

"Iowa needs to prioritize improving and protecting its waters, but once again the EPC pushed the decision down the road for another day," said Josh Mandelbaum, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. "There is no reason these changes could not be implemented now and then incorporated into the DNR's rule review. Nitrate and bacteria are already in our waters and need to be addressed now."

IEC and ELPC will be included as stakeholders in the DNR's five-year review process, which is already underway within DNR. At today's hearing, DNR staff indicated draft rules may be available in March. IEC and ELPC look forward to working with the DNR and other parties to create updated rules that better protect water quality, public health, and recreation.


  1. cafos
  2. clean water
  3. clean water act
  4. dnr
  5. karst
  6. nitrate pollution
  7. public health
  8. water quality