A Clean Water Win in Iowa

Two of the Mississippi River Collaborative’s member organizations celebrated a recent win for clean water. An Iowa District Court sided with the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law & Policy Center when it ruled the Iowa DNR failed to appropriately enforce the state’s clean water anti-degradation standards when it approved a wastewater treatment project that would increase pollution in the Des Moines River Watershed. The Court’s ruling reverses DNR’s decision and requires the agency to revisit the analysis and appropriately account for environmental benefits of less polluting project designs. As the first legal case addressing the enforcement of the anti-degradation standards since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the standards in 2014, this case is significant.

“We are pleased that the Court protected the integrity of Iowa’s clean water anti-degradation standards,” said Executive Director Ralph Rosenberg. “With this new guidance from the Court, we look forward to working with DNR in the future to effectively implement the anti-degradation rules to protect some of Iowa’s most important lakes, rivers and streams.”

A bit of background on the case:
In 2014, the City of Clarion submitted a project design to expand its wastewater treatment plant to DNR. Iowa’s anti-degradation standards require pollution permittees to consider alternative treatments that reduce pollution and implement those treatments where appropriate. However, while there was an alternative design that would reduce pollution – which Clarion’s own analysis deemed both practical and affordable – it was eliminated in favor of a less-expensive design based on costs alone. Despite its responsibility to enforce Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, DNR allowed Clarion to choose the least expensive option without fully considering the environmental improvement from the alternative, pollution-reducing design.

The Iowa Environmental Council has regularly filed public comments and met with DNR officials about the proper consideration of Iowa’s anti-degradation standards on an ongoing basis since 2013. These comments and concerns were disregarded, leaving no option but to seek a legal resolution.

Following DNR’s approval of the Clarion project, the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a petition for judicial review in state District Court on behalf of the Iowa Environmental Council. The Court found that under Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, a higher cost project design could be implemented if it would have a substantial environmental benefit.

“[E]conomic efficiency involves a comparison between costs and environmental benefit, [and] no such analysis appears in the final alternative analysis at even a rudimentary level,” stated Judge Michael Huppert in his opinion.

Adopted in 2010, Iowa’s anti-degradation standards are an important part of the Clean Water Act and are designed to prevent unnecessary new or increased water pollution. The Council was instrumental in shaping these strong but reasonable standards.

Read more here.

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