Facing clean water risk from harmful manure spills, Iowa should not retreat from oversight duty

Two fish in an Iowa waterway died during a manure spill.

Manure spills can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. According to the Council’s analysis, illegal manure spills killed more than 1.2 million fish in Iowa in the last ten years.

News broke recently that Governor Branstad has weighed in on a continuing dialogue between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources about whether Iowa is adequately protecting its rivers and lakes from harmful manure spills.

In documents released by the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and the Environmental Integrity Project, the governor expressed reluctance over a draft EPA plan calling for Iowa to verify that livestock operations are not putting local waters at risk.

The Iowa Environmental Council believes that given the harmful effects manure spills have had on Iowa waters, additional protections and oversight are needed.

Last year, the Council analyzed public records about manure spills over the last decade and found spills from livestock operations remain a major threat to water quality and aquatic life.  We identified 262 manure spills that reached Iowa waterways between 2001 and 2011, 42% of which did not result in a documented monetary penalty assessed by DNR.  Fish kills were documented in approximately one-third of spill cases, and DNR estimates revealed at least 1.2 million fish died as a result of these manure spills.

Iowans expect state government to fulfill its responsibilities for providing water that is safe for drinking, recreation, and aquatic life.  Our analysis of manure spills, EPA’s own report on DNR’s practices, and concerns expressed by many Iowans in comments to state government or in the media demonstrate that today, that responsibility is not being met.

Last year, we described ways in which Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources could demonstrate its commitment to protecting waters from harmful spills:

  • DNR should establish a fair and responsible method to regularly inspect confinement facilities to ensure that the way they are managed over time is adequate to protect Iowa’s waters from damaging manure spills.
  • DNR policy should be to seek penalties for all pollutant discharges to water and for failure to address operational violations likely to result in such discharges.  This type of proactive enforcement, and the deterrent effect it creates, is the best way to prevent the high impact spills that currently comprise the bulk of DNR’s enforcement actions.
  • DNR should ensure fines and penalties are strong enough so that operators will not consider installing adequate safeguards to be a less attractive option than simply accepting DNR’s fine should an incident occur.

The Council continues to believe any agreement between the EPA and DNR must be public and address these concerns so that Iowans can be confident state government is keeping Iowa’s waters clean and safe.

The Council has recognized the effect budget reductions for DNR’s inspections and enforcement staff has had on the agency’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities.  During the last legislative session, we pushed for additional funding for inspections and enforcement staff at DNR during the legislative session, and elected officials responded with sufficient funding for seven additional staff.  The Council believes additional on-site inspections are necessary to determine whether risk to waterways exists rather than retreating to broad assessments of data or voluntary compliance alternatives.

We are continuing to monitor developments in this situation closely to ensure state government’s actions protect Iowans’ interest in clean water.

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