Iowa district court rules against DNR in water anti-degradation case

Ruling says state didn't consider alternatives to Clarion wastewater treatment project

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An Iowa District Court earlier this month found the Department of Natural Resources failed to appropriately enforce the state’s clean water anti-degradation standards when it approved a wastewater treatment project that would increase pollution in the Des Moines River watershed.

The ruling is the first legal case addressing the enforcement of the anti-degradation standards — which require consideration and implementation where appropriate of alternative treatments that reduce pollution — since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld them in 2014.

That year, the north-central Iowa city of Clarion submitted to the DNR a project design to expand its wastewater treatment plant that discharges into a tributary of the Boone River, which in turn empties into the Des Moines River.

The DNR allowed Clarion to choose the least expensive option without fully considering the environmental benefits of an alternative, pollution-reducing design that Clarion’s analysis deemed practical and affordable, according to Judge Michael Huppert’s ruling, issued March 17.

The alternative design would have reduced the amounts of nitrates and phosphorus discharged into a watershed that has been plagued with elevated levels of the pollutants targeted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which filed a petition for judicial review on behalf of the Iowa Environmental Council.

The state’s nutrient reduction strategy specifically directs, in situations such as that prevailing in Clarion, that “evaluation of nutrient removal feasibility will be conducted as part of the construction permitting process through current anti-degradation rules and procedures” and that “nutrient removal will be encouraged any time construction is proposed.”

The court found that under Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, a higher-cost project design could be implemented if it would have a substantial environmental benefit. The ruling reverses DNR’s decision and requires the agency to revisit the analysis and appropriately account for environmental benefits of less polluting project designs.

Economic efficiency “involves a comparison between costs and environmental benefit, (and) no such analysis appears in the final alternative analysis,” Huppert said in his opinion.

He said Clarion’s alternatives analysis was “incomplete as measured against the anti-degradation implementation procedure, and the (DNR) erred by approving it.”

“This ruling confirms that consideration of environmental benefits is not optional, and they need to be considered as part of the anti-degradation process,” Mandelbaum said.

The Iowa Environmental Council’s frequent comments about the proper consideration of Iowa’s anti-degradation standards were disregarded, leaving no option but to seek a legal resolution, said Ralph Rosenberg, the council’s executive director.

Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, a required part of the Clean Water Act, are designed to prevent unnecessary water pollution. After their adoption in 2010, agricultural interests challenged them in court. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld them in 2014.

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