DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Iowa officials will inspect more livestock farms and strictly enforce penalties when manure leaks into rivers or streams under a federal agreement signed Wednesday stemming from a yearslong dispute about enforcing the U.S. Clean Water Act.
The agreement comes about a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threatened to take over enforcement of the federal law in Iowa if state officials didn't do a better job. The dispute stemmed back years and centered on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' refusal to regularly inspect the state's thousands of large cattle and hog farms.
"Iowa is one of the world's most productive centers for the meat that feeds this nation and the world, and it also happens to be in the middle of the two great river basins in North America," said Karl Brooks, the EPA regional administrator. "That's why it's really important that Iowa get a first-class water permit program that really matches its role in the center of the United States and this gets Iowa there."
The agreement requires on-site inspections of large livestock farms with more than 1,000 cows or 2,500 hogs. That would include about 3,200 farms in Iowa.
Some smaller farms with at least 300 cows or 750 hogs also may be inspected if they've had recent manure spills or are near streams or rivers. The plan also requires the DNR to evaluate all other medium-sized livestock operations — about 4,800 in Iowa — to be sure they're meeting regulations.
"This work plan agreement clarifies program implementation and is a reflection of Iowans working together on a commonsense solution that will encourage best practices and promote open communication between affected Iowans and the DNR," said DNR Director Chuck Gipp.
Livestock farming has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, from independent farmers raising cows and pigs in pastures or fenced-in lots to operations that now house animals in massive buildings.
Iowa — the nation's leading pork producer — typically has about 20 million hogs. A farm with 2,500 hogs fattened for slaughter generates about 1.2 million gallons of manure a year, most of which is spread onto farm fields as fertilizer.
But the fields can hold only so much before it begins leaching out. Heavy rain at certain times of the year tends to wash even more away into rivers and streams.
In addition, manure spills caused by faulty equipment or accidents can release thousands of gallons into rivers. Such incidents have increased in recent years, polluting local rivers and streams and killing large numbers of fish.
As proof that the state needs to work harder to prevent water pollution, environmental groups frequently point to 479 Iowa lakes, rivers and streams listed as impaired by the EPA. A wet spring this year caused some rivers in central Iowa to record the highest nitrate levels ever.
The EPA's pressure on Iowa began in 2007, after a coalition of environmental and citizen-action groups filed a petition calling on the federal agency to strip the state of its regulatory authority. The groups — Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Iowa Sierra Club — said the state was failing to enforce the Clean Water Act against livestock farms.
Five years later, the EPA informed the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that local farm oversight failed to meet Clean Water Act requirements. The agency concluded that Iowa failed to issue permits to livestock farms when required, did not have an adequate farm inspection program, and did not assess adequate fines when violations occur.
On Wednesday, the environmental groups praised the new agreement.
"This agreement is the critical first step we have been waiting for since EPA found over a year ago that Iowa's factory farm program is failing," said Environmental Integrity Project legal counsel Tarah Heinzen. "Strong continued oversight by EPA will be essential to ensuring Iowa adequately inspects and permits polluting facilities that have been let off the hook for years."
The Iowa Pork Producers Association said its members support the plan and feel it's equitable. The trade group's spokesman, Ron Birkenholz, said hog farmers already operate under a zero-discharge law that prohibits the release of manure into waterways.
"And we remain confident this additional inspection criteria will continue to show positive strides Iowa pork producers have made in managing manure nutrients and maintaining water quality," he said.
Matt Deppe, CEO of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, said farmers are concerned about an additional regulatory burden but appreciated having input into the new agreement.
"Our producers live each and every day working with and being good stewards of the land," Deppe said.
Under the agreement, the state also must adopt rules that require new farms to be specific distances from rivers and streams and broadens the number of farms subject to fines and penalties for failure to comply with regulations.
The agreement requires DNR to submit status reports in 90 days and again in 210 days, and then each year so the EPA can assess whether the state is moving toward compliance with the Clean Water Act.
The environmental groups say they plan to carefully track progress.
"This fight is far from over," said Larry Ginter, a farmer from Rhodes and member of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "We will rigorously monitor the implementation of this agreement and continue to press our demands through rulemaking as well as during the 2014 legislative session."
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