Iowa farmers upbeat after EPA chief’s speech in Des Moines

Source: Written by Jennifer Jacobs, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, August 19, 2013

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks Thursday at the Iowa State Fair.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks Thursday at the Iowa State Fair. / Bill Neibergall/The Register

Gina McCarthy says her agency wants stronger ag community ties.

President Barack Obama’s top environmental official pledged to build trust with farmers in Iowa and elsewhere who have been roundly critical of federal regulation.

“My commitment to you is that at the end of my term, we will have a stronger, more productive, more trusting relationship between EPA and the agriculture community,” Gina McCarthy, the newly appointed administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Thursday during a speech in Des Moines. “Why are we going to do that? It benefits me, it benefits you, and it will make this country stronger.”

The Iowa farmers in the audience — including those who have chafed at the thought of regulation of farm dust, youth employment and heavy penalties for farm runoff problems — all applauded her warmly.

“She’s probably the most on-track EPA director we’ve ever talked to,” said Nancy Beyer, a co-owner of Koszta Farm Corp., a corn and soybean farm in rural Belle Plaine. “This reception was quite favorable.”

Environmental activists had no such warm feelings. They say proposed plans for more oversight of Iowa farm facilities are too weak and won’t do enough to stop pollution in state waterways.

But no protesters disrupted the event, which took place at the Farm Bureau picnic shelter at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. McCarthy agreed to meet later with the environmental activists at the Des Moines airport.

McCarthy refused to answer questions from reporters Thursday.

Iowa is in the middle of a long fight over how state officials will comply with the federal Clean Water Act. As with other states, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources enforces the act for the EPA. Environmental groups say lax regulation of pollution by livestock operations has contributed to more manure spills, more manure reaching rivers and streams, and higher drinking-water treatment costs.

Some activists contend that government officials, including the Republican-led Iowa DNR and Gov. Terry Branstad, are too cozy with farm interests in conducting negotiations on how to provide oversight to prevent pollution from manure. DNR chief Chuck Gipp, Branstad, state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and farm interests have resisted additional regulation of livestock confinements and anything but voluntary compliance in attempting to prevent fertilizer runoff.

McCarthy on Thursday applauded Iowa’s development of a nutrient management strategy to curb field runoff, saying it’s something “we can all be proud of, and we can hold up to those other states to think about.”

“It’s a commitment of all of you to do your part and do it wisely, successfully, using common-sense, step-by-step approaches to make progress. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the work we’re here to celebrate,” she said.

Branstad, who took questions from reporters after the event, had nothing but favorable comments about McCarthy.

The meeting later at the airport — with three EPA officials, three Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement activists, two Iowa Sierra Club activists, one Environmental Integrity Project activist and a crop of Des Moines police and Secret Service agents — was tense at times, the activists said.

After seeing a headline on about the EPA promising a better relationship with farmers, the activists weren’t thrilled.

“We told her what we’d have rather seen in that headline is that she’s going to clean up our water out here,” said Cherie Mortice, a Des Moines resident who operated a consignment hog operation in Story County for 10 years.

“Iowa already has 628 impaired waterways, and nothing is reversing in an industry that’s voluntarily regulated. It won’t work in this state,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation family farmer from Adair County. “At some point, the damage will become irreversible.”

“The best line we got out of her was, ‘I won’t let anyone off the hook,’ ” said David Goodner, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “It sounds good, but it doesn’t really mean a lot.”