Judge: Farm Bureau attack on clean water standards “without merit”

Legal challenges to new clean water protections in Iowa raised by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and other groups are “without merit” and should not move on to trial, a judge in the Iowa District Court for Polk County ruled Friday.

The protections, known as antidegradation rules, limit the harmful effects of new pollution in Iowa’s waters.  They require the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to consider how new pollution in an area might harm uses of the water like drinking, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation when the agency issues permits allowing new pollution discharges.  Different standards of protection apply to different waterways based on their existing quality, and the protections are stronger in places where the water is more pristine.

“We were thrilled to finally see Iowa adopt these protections two years ago, and today we are celebrating again because the court has recognized the Farm Bureau’s legal action for what it is—an obstructionist attempt to achieve in court what they could not accomplish in the rulemaking process,” said Marian Riggs Gelb, the Iowa Environmental Council’s executive director.

Gelb said the ruling is a major milestone on Iowa’s path to effectively implementing the federal Clean Water Act, 40 years after Congress passed it in 1972.  The Environmental Protection Agency called on Iowa to improve its antidegradation policies in the late 1990s, and it took over a decade for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to finalize the rules.

“It only took days after the federal government accepted Iowa’s new standards for the Farm Bureau and others to launch their legal effort to overturn what Iowa achieved,” Gelb said.  “We view these actions as part of Farm Bureau’s all-too-frequent pattern of weakening, delaying, or outright opposing environmental regulations, regardless of the public benefits.”

The Farm Bureau, working with the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and the Iowa Water Environment Association, argued that two members of the state’s Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), Iowa’s environmental rulemaking body, should not have been permitted to cast votes in favor of the proposed rules when they came before the EPC in 2009.

In addition, the Farm Bureau and its collaborators alleged the rulemaking process was flawed in other ways, but the court disagreed, finding no “genuine issue for trial” amid the arguments presented.

Susan Heathcote, who also serves as water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, was one of the two commissioners under scrutiny.  The opponents alleged that Heathcote’s role at the Council, an environmental policy organization, created a conflict of interest that should have prevented her from voting on the antidegradation rules.

The judge disagreed, finding that “there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding Susan Heathcote because reasonable minds could not conclude she had a significant conflict of interest or bias sufficient to invalidate her vote on the antidegradation rules, and thus her vote on the proposed rules was valid.”

Brad Klein, Senior Staff Attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center who represented the Iowa Environmental Council, an intervener in the lawsuit, said Friday’s ruling has broad implications for environmental protection in Iowa.

“It upholds the rigorous, public process that went into developing those standards and the right of public advocates to serve on Iowa boards and commissions,” he said.  “We’re pleased the judge rejected the Farm Bureau’s attempts to use the court system to harass and intimidate public officials that volunteer to serve their communities.”

Further, the court found that the specialized expertise Heathcote brought to the Commission made her more qualified to serve there, not less so, and pointed out that the state law creating the EPC in fact requires members to have knowledge of the areas of law their work will affect.

The court recognized this, referring to an earlier ruling by the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, which has jurisdiction over Iowa public officials and conflicts of interest, in which the board found that in light of “statutory provisions requiring specified knowledge or experience for EPC commissioners,” it would be “‘inappropriate to require those members, whose expertise the legislature values, to refrain from voting on or discussing rules affecting’ those specialized areas.”

“Susan has always been forthright about maintaining an appropriate separation between her work at the Council and her work as a commissioner,” Gelb said.  “The judge’s ruling on this issue is critical because it protects the right of experts in environmental policy like Susan to apply that expertise on behalf of the public when important decisions are being made.”

Gelb said that in addition to threatening important water quality protections for Iowa, the lawsuit has been a way for opponents of environmental protection to attempt to intimidate the Iowa Environmental Council and other environmental groups.

“This litigation has been a costly interruption of our work,” Gelb said, “but we have remained steadfastly committed to our mission of environmental protection, and we will continue our efforts.  Antidegradation protections are already making meaningful improvements to water quality in Iowa, and we hope these rules can now continue in force without further baseless legal challenges.”

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