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Iowa's Anti-degredation rule change is warranted

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Timothy J. Whipple, guest columnist

As with most issues, there is another perspective on the DNR’s new antidegradation rules. Unfortunately, The Gazette editorial board did not meet with the DNR or with the industries and communities asking for help. If it had, I would have hoped for the inclusion of a few things any fair-minded person should know before making up his or her mind about the rule changes.

First, the changes are hardly moving with “blinding speed.” The rules are being changed in response to a petition for rule making that was filed on April 25 — almost four months ago. This petition required DNR to respond because Iowa law imposes deadlines on any agency that receives such a petition. The law also puts limits on how quickly rules can be adopted. In this case, the DNR is carefully following the requirements of the law. The rules are moving along steadily, but that is needed in order to provide legal clarity to other construction permits put in limbo as a result of a court ruling against the DNR. While quicker than some rulemakings, a four or five month process is hardly “rushing.”

Second, there has been ample opportunity for input from both the public and stakeholders. By the time the rules are fully in place, they will have been considered at two different public meetings of the Environmental Protection Commission, one public hearing at the DNR, and two meetings of the legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee. Moreover, the DNR opened a public comment period during which it received comments from 421 people and organizations. The groups now saying there has been no opportunity for input, in fact made public comment at every opportunity the DNR provided.

Finally, the changes themselves are not as significant as critics are saying, and they are not a step backward for water quality. The primary change simply turns a “non-binding guideline” for determining economic efficiency into a binding standard. The standard itself was 115 percent before the change, and it remains 115 percent after the change. In addition, the changes don’t eliminate the consideration of environmental benefit, they merely adjust the role environmental benefits play in the determination of efficiency. In fact, the changes create a presumption that any reduction in pollution load below the base pollution control level carries an environmental benefit.

It’s commendable that critics of the rule change now say they are willing to sit down with the DNR and with communities and industries. However, where was that willingness to collaborate when the Iowa Environmental Council sued to force Clarion to spend millions of additional dollars on its new treatment facility? It is disingenuous to start a fight unilaterally and then demand that others respond by collaborating.

At the end of the day, Iowa communities certainly want clean water, but they need government agencies to be realistic about what can feasibly be accomplished given local revenues and resources. To its credit, the DNR wants to work with communities, not against them, and the antidegradation rules reflect that.

This change is about strengthening communities, not weakening water quality.

• Timothy J. Whipple is general counsel for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities.

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