Press Release

Iowa Environmental Groups Petition EPA for Emergency Action on Iowa Drinking Water

13 organizations join in a call for immediate protections from nitrate pollution

DES MOINES, IA — Today, ELPC, the Iowa Environmental Council and numerous environmental and public health partners petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to take action to protect Iowans from unsafe drinking water. The petition calls for immediate action under the Safe Drinking Water Act to remediate nitrate contamination in Northeast Iowa drinking water sources.

The petition highlights nitrate concentrations above 10 milligrams per liter in drinking water, which is the federal limit as established by the EPA, and documents that thousands of private well tests and some public water wells have regularly exceeded that concentration for years.

“The rules adopted by the Environmental Protection Commission show that the state doesn’t care about protecting drinking water if it means imposing any costs or requirements on agriculture. We need EPA intervention to protect Iowans from ongoing pollution,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Senior Attorney for ELPC. “No Iowan should have to worry that their drinking water is contaminated with agricultural pollution. The state’s new rules do not even begin to fix the problem.”

“No Iowan should have to worry that their drinking water is contaminated with agricultural pollution. The state’s new rules do not even begin to fix the problem”Josh Mandelbaum, ELPC Senior Attorney

“People living in Northeast Iowa have been exposed to high nitrate in drinking water for decades. High nitrate is a danger to infants, but an increasing number of health studies connect long-term nitrate exposure, even at levels below the drinking water standard, to various cancers. It’s past time to take action to clean up our drinking water,” said Alicia Vasto, Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “The state has shown once again that it will not take action to protect drinking water sources from pollution, so the EPA must intervene.”

Eleven groups joined ELPC and IEC’s petition submitted today to the EPA: Allamakee County Protectors – Education Campaign, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Working Group, Food & Water Watch, Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Izaak Walton League of America – Iowa Division, Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, Iowa Coldwater Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited – Iowa Driftless Chapter 717.

The groups filed the petition with the EPA following the state’s Environmental Protection Commission adoption of rules for animal feeding operations (AFOs) that rejected a request to increase drinking water protections. The Commission adopted the rules at their meeting on April 16 despite formal and public comments from Iowans criticizing the rules for not protecting water quality.

Food & Water Watch Staff Attorney Dani Replogle said, “The state’s failure to regulate industrial agriculture pollution has steadily eroded Iowans’ right to clean drinking water. For decades, Northeast Iowa residents have been exposed to dangerous levels of nitrate contaminated water. As the state reckons with high cancer levels and ongoing pollution regulation rollbacks, federal action is needed to safeguard the right to clean water. EPA must exercise emergency authority to hold polluters accountable and deliver safe drinking water in Iowa.”

ELPC and the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) petitioned the state’s Environmental Protection Commission for stronger rules protecting karst terrain from AFO pollution in 2021. Karst terrain, which comprises Northeast Iowa’s Driftless Region, features porous, fractured limestone which allows surface water and pollutants to quickly and easily infiltrate groundwater. The Commission denied the petition in 2022 on a promise from DNR officials that it would undertake a comprehensive AFO rule update. The rule update reorganized karst provisions, but did not make the changes sought in the petition.

ELPC, IEC, and other partner organizations called again for those changes in follow-up comments throughout the rulemaking process in 2023. In initial drafts, Department of Natural Resources modestly increased protections for karst, but those changes were removed by the Governor’s staff late last year.

“Refusing to regulate one of the state’s main sources of nitrate shows that state leaders care more about the agriculture industry’s bottom line than about the water Iowans drink,” said Dale Braun, President of the Iowa Division of the Izaak Walton League, which represents 7,000 Iowa members. “Instead of stepping up for the people of Iowa, they protected industrial agriculture and the status quo: polluted drinking water.”

In April of last year, Minnesota groups filed a petition to EPA seeking emergency action in Southeast Minnesota, which has the same geology and similar levels of nitrate pollution as Northeast Iowa. EPA responded in November 2023 that the state of Minnesota must take action and develop a plan to reduce nitrate pollution.

“It seems clear Iowans can’t depend on state regulators, this Governor, or the Legislature to protect our environment and ensure our right to safe drinking water,” said Tim Wagner with the Iowa Coldwater Conservancy. “We face the same pollution problems and have an even more lax regulatory structure for large feedlot operations than Minnesota. Hence, it appears that asking the EPA to step in is the only option left.”

There is no mandated timeline for EPA to respond to the petition, but the groups anticipate a response within three to six months. Read the petition in its entirety here.

IEC will host a free webinar about the AFO rules approved today and the EPA petition on Wednesday, May 1, at 12 p.m. The public is invited to attend to learn more about these topics. Registration details are available here.

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