State Denies Petition to Protect Karst and Drinking Water: What's Next?

posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2022 in Water and Land News

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission last month denied a petition for rules filed last year by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). The denial ended a six-month review of the petition, which requested enhanced rules to protect drinking water from animal feedlot pollution in karst terrain. Instead, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced that it intends to address the concerns raised in the petition as part of a broader rulemaking process on animal feeding operation siting issues. 

IEC Staff Attorney Michael Schmidt presents to the Environmental Protection CommissionIEC staff attorney Michael Schmidt presented evidence on the proliferation of feedlots in Iowa and the state’s extensive water pollution. This pollution has serious consequences, including increased cancer incidences from contaminated drinking water and treatment expenses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Schmidt pointed out that data show worsening water quality. 

The proposed rule changes would have reduced the risk of further pollution, both to drinking water sources and other waters in karst terrain. Karst includes soluble rocks such as limestone, which connect groundwater and surface water, and are common near the ground surface in Northeast Iowa, leading to the region’s many sinkholes and natural springs. Karst is a sensitive landscape that creates a nearly direct conduit for pollution to travel quickly from the surface to groundwater.  

Map illustrating CAFO growth in Iowa from 1990 to 2019, map from EWGThe requested changes would have required increased protections in this type of terrain, including installation of pollution monitoring systems, consideration of unique or special environmental factors in feedlot approvals, and stricter requirements for the approval of new livestock facility construction.  

DNR argued to the Commission that the department lacked statutory authority to require pollution monitoring or consider unique environmental factors. For the other protections, DNR stated it should conduct a broader review of karst siting rules rather than adopt the changes in the petition. The agency will incorporate issues IEC raised in the petition into a five-year rule review and anticipates the release of proposed changes with stakeholders this month or next. There is no timeline or deadline for the DNR to initiate the formal rule making process, and final adoption of rules could take years. 

Some commissioners acknowledged they agreed with parts of the petition, but the commission voted to deny it based on the DNR’s assertion that the issues would be addressed in the forthcoming comprehensive rules review and update.  

Baby bottles near a faucetIEC will participate in DNR’s proposed rule making process with a primary focus on protecting drinking water from livestock pollution. IEC awaits the DNR’s proposed changes and will work with the agency and other parties to develop rules that better protect water quality, public health, and recreation. 

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