EPA rejects IDNR effort to loosen water quality standards; change pushed by industry lobbyists

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rejected an effort to loosen water quality protection rules in Iowa, saying proposed changes to "antidegradation standards" sought by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) violate federal rules.

In a letter to the IDNR January 19, the EPA's Region 7 Administrator Mark Hague wrote the state was "seeking to establish a one-size-fits-all rule that only projects costs less than 115 percent of base costs optimize 'the balance between water quality benefits and project costs.' "

"The EPA does not find that the 115 percent hard cap in the revised Antidegradation Implemention Policy (AIP) ever requires any estimate of water quality benefit – it unilaterally mandates that any project cost equal to or exceeding 115 precent of the base case cost is not economically efficient," the EPA wrote in rejecting the so-called "bright line" standard planned by the IDNR.

"In other words, it mandates that water quality benefits and project costs are always optimally balanced as long as the project cost is not greater than or equal to 115 percent of the base case cost," according to the EPA letter to the IDNR.

Three special interest groups – the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities – had pushed for the change in antidegradation regulations after an Iowa District Court judge ruled against the city of Clarion last year regarding an upgrade to the city's wastewater treatment facility.

The court found the IDNR failed to include the environmental benefit in its economic efficiency analysis of the project back in 2014.

Two months after the district court ruling, the three special interest groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) for the antidegradation rule change. The EPC is a nine-member panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate to provide policy oversight of state environmental protection efforts.

The EPC fast-tracked approval of the revised antidegradation regulations using its emergency rules to pass the 115 percent cap on costs. That set up the review – and rejection – by the EPA of the proposed rule after more than six months of negotiations and discussions between the IDNR and EPA.

CLICK HERE to download the EPA Region 7 letter rejecting the IDNR antidegradation rule change.

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