EPC approves clean water rule change

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DES MOINES — Revisions to Iowa’s water-quality standards approved Wednesday by a state regulatory panel were cheered by cities, towns and businesses facing potential cost uncertainties but panned by environmentalists who worry protections are being weakened.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, without dissent, approved a change that removed a benefit analysis from anti-degradation standards as part of a process that limits to 115 percent the cost of pollution-reducing upgrades or treatments. The amended guidelines implemented under emergency rule-making procedures take effect Friday.

Timothy Whipple, general counsel for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, called Wednesday’s change to Iowa’s anti-degradation policy “minimal.” He said it clarifies but doesn’t lower standards to balance environmental stewardship and fiscal responsibility.

“We want communities to be able to have a say in how much cost they take on and when,” he said.

Wednesday’s action was in response to a district court order. A judge had ruled that state Department of Natural Resources officials must ensure that projects seeking permits to add new pollution to a waterway have considered the environmental benefits of alternative, pollution-cutting designs regardless of costs.

Representatives from the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Iowa Environmental Council spoke against the proposal Wednesday, saying the changes likely will lead to more pollution and undermine the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Opponents contended the new policy removes a provision requiring consideration of environmental benefits before eliminating less-polluting alternatives, replacing the existing case-by-case approach with a one-size-fits-all approach based on cost alone. The change opens the door for Environmental Protection Agency intervention, they say.

Susan Heathcote, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council, said she was disappointed but not surprised by Wednesday’s outcome. She said she had hoped the commission would direct DNR officials to conduct a stakeholder process to develop further guidance without weakening clean water protections, which she hoped would be rejected by federal EPA overseers.

“They feel that the process that they have is a fair and balanced approach, and we disagree with that,” she said. “We think it’s too weighted to the cost side and not enough to the environmental benefits side.”

DNR Director Chuck Gipp said the current situation poses a “conundrum” for small cities in Iowa with aging or declining populations that want to take steps to upgrade wastewater treatment or make other improvements but face prohibitive costs that increase charges for residents and deter development.

Gipp called it “a reach” for opponents to contend the change represented a step backward for the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“Nobody’s for dirty water, but what can you actually spend? How can we improve water quality overall but at the same time make it affordable so that we just don’t drive some citizens into bankruptcy?” he asked. “That’s what this rule is about, is to make sure you know what you have to do and there’s no darkness or uncertainty.”

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