Iowa greens meet with EPA chief, press for stricter CAFO regs

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, August 19, 2013

Environmentalists urged U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy Thursday to take a hard line toward Iowa’s livestock permitting program during the agency chief’s visit to Des Moines.

Ahead of their 30-minute meeting with McCarthy, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter and the Environmental Integrity Project released documents that they say show both state regulators taking a lax approach to Clean Water Act enforcement at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

“Any inspection process that fails to result in strong and effective Clean Water Act permits for factory farms will not adequately protect water quality in Iowa, yet EPA is proposing a plan that does not even meet its own guidelines,” Environmental Integrity Project attorney Tarah Heinzen said. “EPA should require Iowa to do more, not less, than other states to fix its broken program and ensure that [the state Department of Natural Resources] identifies and begins regulating every factory farm discharger.”

McCarthy had spent most of  Thursday in meetings with state officials, including Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and the heads of the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and Land Stewardship. She also mingled with farmers at the Iowa State Fair and awarded several farm environmental leadership awards.

The environmental groups scored the airport meeting with McCarthy just ahead of her scheduled departure. Heinzen said the meeting was also attended by EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks and EPA acting water chief Nancy Stoner. Earlier in the day, the environmentalists had a separate meeting with officials from EPA Region 7.

With 20 million hogs, Iowa is the largest U.S. pork-producing state. As an authorized state under the Clean Water Act, it has the ability to issue its own pollution permits to CAFOs.

In 2007, the three environmental groups petitioned EPA to take over the state’s permitting program, arguing that it was less stringent than what the federal law required and that the state was not taking proper enforcement actions. In 2011, EPA investigated the program and came to similar conclusions, finding that the state DNR had inadequate procedures to identify CAFOs and issue necessary permits (Greenwire, July 13, 2012).

The state responded by issuing a paper last fall that acknowledged some flaws with its inspections and blamed some problems on a reduced workforce.

DNR proposed expanded staffing and said it would revise its enforcement documents and penalty policies. It’s currently preparing a work plan that includes a revised inspection process, guidance for rulemaking and changes to how the state issues penalties.

Before the McCarthy meeting yesterday, the groups released the state’s proposed inspection protocols and EPA’s comments on the documents and said that neither goes far enough to protect Iowa’s water quality.

According to the documents, EPA plans to require the state to inspect hog confinements with more than 5,000 hogs even though federal CAFO rules require state agencies to inspect operations with more than 2,500 hogs to see whether they require permits.

Heinzen said the plan would effectively require the state to conduct on-site inspections of only the largest CAFOs and leave out more than 2,000 facilities that fall under the federal definition of a large CAFO. The state would be allowed to issue permits for the remaining facilities through off-site desk reviews.

“This is the process through which DNR will finally assess each facility and determine which ones will require Clean Water Act permits. So those inspections need to be very rigorous,” Heinzen said. “We think DNR should inspect every large and medium facility.”

Heinzen said the meeting with McCarthy went well.

“EPA’s track record regulating factory farm pollution over the last four years has been very poor, and we’re hoping Gina McCarthy can turn things around and get some stronger regulations in place,” she said. “I think that she seems to be someone that’s very interested in learning about the issue and meeting with all the stakeholders involved.”

Kevin Baskins, a spokesman for the Iowa DNR, said today that department officials discussed the draft work plan again this morning with EPA officials and that changes could still be made before it becomes final. The environmental groups’ petition for EPA to take over the state permitting program is still outstanding and will depend on the final work plan.

“One of the big questions right now are some of the thresholds and which inspections would be done in terms of the size of operations,” Baskins said. “The negotiations are continuing, and I think there will be further discussions as we get into next week.”

McCarthy came across very positively during her meetings with state officials and agriculture producers, he said.

“I’m very impressed with her. I think that she was very sincere in that she wanted to work cooperatively rather than confrontationally with agriculture,” Baskins said, “and I think that’s why some of the livestock producers are maybe a little more upbeat today than they have been.”

“The DNR is always working to improve permitting and enforcement efforts and plans on making a number of changes based on the EPA report,” the department said in its response to EPA last year. “However, the DNR does not believe that all of the claims made in EPA’s report are accurate.”

EPA did not return a request for comment.

When asked about the various meetings yesterday with state officials, Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Branstad’s office, said that the governor and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) invited McCarthy to come to Iowa to “learn about the impact of regulations on agriculture.”

“The governor and lieutenant governor are hoping to educate her in order to avoid unintended consequences, and will continue working with all stakeholders,” he said in an emailed statement. “The governor and lieutenant governor respect and appreciate that she accepted the invitation to learn about agriculture in Iowa, and its importance to Iowa families and our economic future. The governor and lieutenant governor are taking this opportunity to reach across the table and work with her to find solutions with additional stakeholder input.”

The environmental groups’ petition for EPA to take over the state permitting program is still outstanding and will depend on the final work plan.