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EPA: Iowa must fix regulation of livestock farms

David Pitt

Federal environmental regulators have sharply criticized the state of Iowa for failure to enforce the Clean Water Act and gave the state 60 days to come up with a written plan to fix the problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a report issued Thursday that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has failed to take timely enforcement actions against livestock facilities that violate the Clean Water Act and it did not assess adequate penalties in many cases.

The EPA also said Iowa's program is not sufficient to assess whether livestock operations need to obtain federal waste discharge permits. It said the state's inspection program is inadequate, and that Iowa failed to act in nearly half of the water quality violation cases against cattle farms that the EPA reviewed.

Staff cuts at the DNR since 2007 have prevented the agency from carrying out its responsibilities, the EPA determined.

Iowa has about 7,000 animal feeding operations and must have a process that complies with federal law and protects the quality of Iowa's rivers, lakes and streams, Karl Brooks, EPA Region 7 Administrator, said in a statement. He did note that the state has made progress, and the report listed several areas Iowa has addressed past problems through legislation or policy changes.

"Although today's report highlights areas for improvement, IDNR has made substantial strides in identifying large open feedlots and requiring those operators to apply for permits," he said.

The EPA report was done in response to a petition filed in 2007 by three environmental groups _ The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project _ which alleged that Iowa's program fell far short of meeting enforcement requirements of the Clean Water Act. The petition asked the EPA to step in and withdraw Iowa's authority to enforce federal water regulations.

"We need stronger laws, tougher enforcement, and a fully funded DNR," said Larry Ginter, a farmer from Rhodes and member of an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "It's time for Gov. Branstad to embrace our agenda and move away from the failed corporate policies of deregulation and privatization he has set us on."

Iowa DNR spokeswoman Julie Sparks said the agency is reviewing the EPA documents and expects to respond next week. Gov. Terry Branstad's spokesman, Tim Albrecht, said he had no immediate comment since they're still reviewing the documents.

Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project, said EPA's investigation affirms that the state has been looking the other way when farms pollute rivers and streams.

"EPA's findings are a critical first step, but the real work of fixing Iowa's broken factory farm program and restoring water quality is just beginning," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Cattlemen's Association defended the DNR, saying it has done an exceptional job of enforcing the Clean Water Act and other federal regulations.

Caitlin Miller said of the initial 31 allegations alleged by the environmental groups, the DNR has already resolved 26. The remaining five issues can be fixed without new laws or major rule changes.

"I think we will need to see what the EPA and the Iowa DNR can resolve within the next 60 days and maybe from there we'll have a little bit more information," she said.

The EPA said the initial report is the first step, and that it will provide an opportunity for the public to comment on the state agency's proposals.

At some point, the EPA will make a final determination on whether to revoke the state's authority to enforce water regulations, which would be unusual.

The Associated Press