The Register editorial: EPA letter should be a wakeup call

The following editorial appeared in the Des Moines Register on July 19, 2012. Read the full online version here.

Many of Iowa’s rivers and streams are filthy. Some lakes smell like toilets. Residents receive numerous warnings about fecal matter and bacteria that make swimming unsafe. Nitrates threaten drinking water. Our hundreds of polluted waterways further contaminate the Mississippi River, and Iowa contributes to the vast “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an oxygen-depleted region where little to no sea life can exist.

Why is our water so dirty? The state’s agricultural businesses, including 7,000 animal feeding operations, is a significant reason. Why do they do so much damage to the environment? Elected officials let them.

So a recent letter to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is really no surprise. It informed Chuck Gipp, director of the DNR, that an informal investigation found regulatory problems with large-scale animal agricultural operations. Raising animals for food creates a lot of waste, and too much of it ends up in Iowa’s rivers and lakes.

According to the EPA report, the DNR is not conducting proper oversight, not acting on violations and does not have adequate penalties in place when violations occur. The state isn’t meeting even the minimal federal requirements for animal confinements. The DNR has 60 days to explain what action it will take to ensure we are protecting our waterways and complying with the Clean Water Act.

But the report is a symptom of a bigger problem: Politicians don’t want to stand up to the powerful farm lobby by adequately regulating operators and requiring them to be good stewards of the environment.

The 40-page EPA report refers to hundreds of water quality complaints that come to the DNR each year and a 2010 law related to feeding operations. Lawmakers included a provision stating any rules adopted “shall be no more stringent than the federal requirements.”

Our elected officials enact laws to ensure there is little regulation. They underfund state agencies that oversee agricultural operations. They send a message to go easy on polluters. And the rest of us pay the price with dirty water. That compromises recreational and tourism opportunities, which affects this state’s economy.

“The big picture is that Iowa has gone out of its way to do as little as possible,” said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the groups that filed a petition that led to the EPA investigation. “The DNR doesn’t have the resources or the political will to go out and enforce the law. It also forgoes all those penalties and fees, which are sources of revenue.”

Yes, agriculture is an important part of Iowa’s economy and employs tens of thousands of Iowans. But residents also want a clean environment, as evidenced by overwhelming voter support in 2010 to create a fund for conservation and recreation. Healthy farm businesses and clean waterways can coexist — if state officials finally make the latter a priority.