February 07, 2017
DES MOINES – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that changes to Iowa’s clean water antidegradation standards approved by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission last August violate federal standards.
In a January 19, 2017 letter sent to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the EPA disapproved rulemaking changes to Iowa’s clean water antidegradation standards. EPA’s decision prevents a weakening of Iowa’s antidegradation implementation – a pillar of the Clean Water Act designed to prevent unnecessary new pollution.
Prior to the changes adopted last August, Iowa’s antidegradation standards required a discharger wanting to add new pollution to an Iowa water to demonstrate to DNR that the cost of implementing a more environmentally-friendly alternative is disproportionately high compared to the benefits. The rejected changes removed provisions requiring consideration of environmental benefits before eliminating less polluting alternatives, and replaced the prior case-by-case approach with a one-size-fits-all approach based on cost alone. Iowa is now in a situation where Iowa’s adopted rules are inconsistent with the Clean Water Act and create significant uncertainty for dischargers.
Representatives from the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) commented at several meetings over the summer to reiterate concerns that the proposed antidegradation changes would represent a big step backward in the state’s clean water efforts. The groups argued against the proposed changes at the Administrative Rules Review Committee meetings in July and September, DNR’s public hearing in June, and the EPC meetings in May and August, and submitted written comments to DNR outlining concerns. The groups warned that these changes would be inconsistent with federal law and would not be approved by EPA. The groups actively suggested a stakeholder process to develop further guidance to address other stakeholder’s concerns without weakening existing clean water protections. The two groups remain committed to that approach after EPA’s decision.
“A strong antidegradation policy is essential to protect the water quality of Iowa’s lakes and streams. EPA recognized that eliminating the consideration of environmental benefits undermined the intended purpose of these Clean Water Act rules,” said IEC Executive Director Ralph Rosenberg in response to EPA’s recent decision. “The Council will continue to speak out to reduce threats to the quality of Iowa’s drinking and recreational waters from both urban and agricultural sources.”
“We commend the EPA for maintaining the clean water protections of Iowa’s antidegradation standards,” said Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney at ELPC. “As we’ve said all along in this process, we continue to be willing to work with stakeholders to properly implement Iowa’s strong antidegradation standards. We think that is a more constructive approach to protect Iowa’s waters than looking for ways to undermine those standards.”
Last March, a district court judge sided with the IEC and ELPC in a case that compelled DNR to appropriately enforce Iowa’s antidegradation standards – a pillar of the Clean Water Act designed to prevent unnecessary new pollution. In response, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities and Iowa League of Cities filed a petition for rulemaking, and DNR recommended changes based on the petition to the EPC in May. The Iowa EPC voted to adopt the changes on an emergency basis last August.
ELPC and IEC were instrumental in shaping Iowa’s strong but reasonable antidegradation standards. Both groups have regularly filed public comments and met with DNR officials about the proper consideration of Iowa’s antidegradation 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 antidegradation standards since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the standards in 2014.