Put the brakes on changes to clean water rules in Iowa

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Iowa’s Environmental Protection Commission is poised to make an important decision this week with blinding speed and too little input from the public and stakeholders.

The commission is scheduled Wednesday to take up a major change in Iowa’s anti-degradation rules, which are designed to protect our waterways from new, unnecessary pollution from point sources such as factories and wastewater facilities.

Iowa’s robust standards call for a three-part analysis of construction proposals that would increase pollution to Iowa waterways, including a cost-benefit analysis of alternative, polution-reducing designs.

In March, a District Court judge ruled that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources had failed to enforce that standard, a victory for environmental groups but a defeat for businesses and municipalities who contend the cost-benefit analysis is too difficult and expensive to calculate without clear methodology or process from the state.

The DNR contends those costs are tough to figure. Members of the Iowa Environmental Council who met with our editorial board last week say they are more than willing to sit down with DNR, cities and others to find a reasonable path forward. Instead, the EPC is moving to simply strike the cost-benefit analysis from the rules, limiting the cost of new antipollution measures at treatment plants to 115 percent of their base control costs. Left out of the equation is the cost of dirty water, or the value of reducing pollution.

The EPC is attempting to adopt the rule change on an “emergency” basis. So if it’s approved Wednesday, the new rule takes effect on Friday. The DNR did allow a public comment period in June and early July, but this still seems like an unwarranted summertime rush job.

“This is the fastest I’ve seen rule-making move,” Josh Mandelbaum, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center told us last week.

Clearly, growing industry in Iowa is a good thing, as are clear standards that encourage that growth while protecting our natural and shared resources.

The best way to do both is to clarify and simplify the cost-benefit analysis requirement, not to simply throw it out.

Nearly two years of work went into crafting the current anti-degradation rules. During that process, stakeholders from concerned groups, municipalities and industries had a seat at the table. Regulators should bring them back to the table for fine tuning, not rush to make such a significant change.

If the EPC moves ahead, we hope the federal Environmental Protection Commission blocks the rule change. State lawmakers also could stop the change. If it comes to that, they must.

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