Environmental activists say Branstad undermining clean water efforts

Official: “It's time to clean it up. Clean up our water, and clean up our government.”

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DES MOINES - Environmental activists in Iowa Tuesday accused Gov. Terry Branstad of undermining efforts to clean up the state’s waterways by lobbying on behalf of agricultural groups rather than advocating reforms to halt farm chemical runoff and manure spills in Iowa streams and rivers.

“Gov. Branstad’s direct involvement in negotiations between (federal and state environmental regulators) may be responsible for the delay finalizing a much-needed work plan agreement to fix Iowa’s failing factory farm pollution program,” said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.

The Environmental Integrity Project, the Iowa Sierra Club and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents about negotiations between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources regarding clean water regulation in Iowa.

Documents made public by the environmental groups included a May 20 letter from the governor’s office to top EPA administrators insisting that federal regulators come to Iowa, view conditions for themselves and meet with Branstad, other state officials and leaders from Iowa’s agriculture industry.

“This letter demonstrates a troubling degree of political interference with Clean Water Act enforcement in Iowa,” said Heinzen.

Environmental groups that made the FOIA request said the documents dispute EPA directives that large-scale livestock operations in Iowa that are required to have manure management plans be inspected by DNR officials to ensure they are in compliance with the Clean Water Act, as well as oppose EPA guidance over state procedures and training. The environmentalists noted that the Branstad administration bypassed the regional EPA office in Kansas City, which had been negotiated directly with state officials about clean water regulations.

“Branstad’s letter to the EPA appears to be a brazen intervention directly on behalf of big agribusiness interests like the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation to the exclusion of everyday Iowans, consumers, and other community stakeholders,” Wally Taylor, an attorney for the Iowa Sierra Club, said in a statement.

“I’m so mad I could spit,” added CCI board president Lori Nelson of Bayard. “Gov. Branstad, the Farm Bureau does not run this state. It’s time to clean it up. Clean up our water, and clean up our government.”

Branstad aides declined to make the governor accessible to respond to the groups’ claims following a meeting of the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress, saying he would be available following a ceremony at a Madison County farm to re-enact his signing of nutrient reduction strategies legislation and a water-quality wetland tour with Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

Last session Northey requested and received $2.4 million for an agriculture water quality initiative to assist farmers in cost-share efforts to promote conservation practices. He said the initiative would make Iowa a national leader in improving water quality by promoting voluntary farm conservation efforts and show a good-faith effort that could head off EPA pressure to take over regulation of clean-water violations that pollute lakes and rivers in Iowa and downstream waterways.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht issued a statement Tuesday saying the governor and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds support a “common-sense approach” to protecting Iowa’s natural resources, air and water and have been working with federal officials and interested stakeholders to address concerns. They also have “expressed strong concerns for EPA’s ‘gotcha’ approach to regulation,” according to the statement.

“For example, in this draft work plan on this topic, the EPA is asking for farm investigations on all Iowa farm families that have over 300 animal units, which in many cases, are small family farms. As the letter to the EPA mentioned, these proposed farm investigations by the EPA are proposed even for farms that never have received a complaint about their operation and for farms that are not even under the jurisdiction of the EPA or the federal government,” according to the statement from the governor’s office.

Albrecht noted that conversations on the work plan are still ongoing and an agreement has not been reached on a final work plan.

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