Never mind the pollution: EPA head Scott Pruitt visits Iowa to discuss making water regulations more industry friendly

Gov. Reynolds and state officials meet with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (l), on Aug. 8, 2017. — photo courtesy of the Office of Gov. Reynolds

More than half of the rivers, streams and lakes in the state assessed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have been damaged by pollution, and this year water-borne pollution from Iowa was partially responsible for largest dead zone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. But when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt met with Gov. Kim Reynolds in Des Moines on Tuesday, the discussion focused on undoing a major clean water initiative started by the Obama administration.

It’s no surprise Pruitt would oppose an Obama-era environmental policy. Pruitt was attorney general of Oklahoma before Donald Trump selected him to head the EPA. During his five year career as attorney general (2011 to 2016), Pruitt filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA, seeking to block or overturn federal environmental policies.

During his first six months on the job, Pruitt has rescinded or delayed implementation of more than 30 environmental regulations, far more than any previous administrator.

Pruitt was in Iowa for a roundtable discussion hosted by Reynolds on replacing one of those rescinded regulations, the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which was completed in 2015 but was prevented from taking effect by a temporary injunction pending the outcome of a federal court case.

The federal government has had jurisdiction over all “navigable waters” in the United States since 1899, and since 1972 it’s had the authority to regulate pollution in those waters. But the term “navigable waters” has never been clearly defined. A series of court decisions since 1899 has expanded the definition to include streams that could not be transversed by a ship, and bodies of water adjacent to traditional navigable waterways. WOTUS was intended to provide a clear definitions, and establish what waterways the EPA has authority over.

Pruitt claims WOTUS would have done the exact opposite.

“When the EPA defines a ‘Waters of the United States’ as being a puddle, a dry creek bed and an ephemeral drainage ditch, then clearly they were misplaced,” Pruitt told Radio Iowa “and they have not provided great certainty to landowners.”

WOTUS, of course, did not apply to puddles or ephemeral ditches, but Pruitt’s statement echoes that of groups lobbying to roll back federal water regulations. Again, that’s not surprising. In February it was revealed that Pruitt had allowed an oil and gas exploration company to write policy statements for his office when he was Oklahoma attorney general.

Iowa is the 18th state Pruitt has visited on a tour to gather information for a potential WOTUS replacement. In addition to Pruitt and Reynolds, the roundtable discussion included Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill.

In a statement following the roundtable, Reynolds said she wanted to thank Pruitt, “for the positive steps already shown by the administration in rescinding the federally invasive WOTUS rule.”

Reynolds called WOTUS “a massive federal land grab” and also thanked Pruitt “for traveling to Iowa to hear directly from our farmers about how the WOTUS rule will affect them.”

“You’ll notice [Reynolds] just mentioned farmers,” David Osterberg of the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) said. “Not mentioned are the people who use the lakes and rivers for recreation or other purposes. Also not mentioned is everyone in the state who relies on drinking water that comes from our rivers. It seems the focus is on getting regulations off farmers, and not in acknowledging that we all have an interest in clean water.”

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In addition to his work on environmental issues for IPP, Osterberg is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. Osterberg is fairly certain about the sort of rules Pruitt will end up implementing.

“My expectations are that whatever industry wants will probably have more impact on new federal rules coming out of the EPA than anything else,” he said.

In Iowa, agriculture is the most important industry. It also has the single largest impact on the quality of water in the state.

“Just look at the state of Iowa,” Osterberg said. “It’s 36 million acres, 30 million of which are devoted to agriculture. Of those 30 million, 25 million are planted with just two crops: corn and soy beans.”

Both crops require fertilizer, which is largely composed of nitrogen and phosphorus. Run-off from the fertilized fields into waterways constitutes one of the primary sources of so-called nutrient pollution in Iowa’s waters.

Nutrient pollution causes, among other things, spikes in the amount of water-borne bacteria as well as algae blooms, both of which can kill fish and cause illness in humans. Since 2006, the DNR has issued almost 200 warnings for the beaches on lakes in Iowa due to high levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by blue-green algae. The problem may be more widespread than even the large number of official warnings indicates.

“The DNR only measures pollution levels in 39 lakes, and only takes those measurements between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Osterberg noted.

The problems caused by agricultural run-off pollution also extend to urban water supplies. In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works sued 10 northern Iowa drainage districts over the amount of fertilizer run-off the districts were allowing into the Raccoon River, one of central Iowa’s main sources of potable water. The Water Works was seeking to recover the costs of removing nitrates from the river in order to make the water safe for consumption. In 2015, the Water Works estimated it spent $1.2 million to remove nitrates, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects, as well as other health problems. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year.

The problems caused by Iowa’s nutrient pollution aren’t confined to the state. The state’s rivers ultimately reaches the Mississippi River, which carries pollution to the Gulf of Mexico. Once in the Gulf, it contributes to the creation of an annual algae bloom that depletes the oxygen in the water, killing marine life and causing a massive dead zone.

The size of this year’s dead zone in the Gulf breaks all previous records. It covers an area of 8,776 square miles, approximately the size of New Jersey.

“Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that drives this problem comes from the Upper Midwest,” Don Scavia of the University of Michigan told NPR. “It’s coming from agriculture.”

Scavia has been studying the dead zone since the 1980s. In a paper published last month in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, Scavia and five colleagues concluded that shrinking the size of the Gulf dead zone will require drastic cuts in the amount of nutrient pollution produced by Midwestern farms.

Iowa has no regulatory structure governing nutrient pollution. It also has no comprehensive program to monitor the amount of pollution in the state’s waterways. The state’s official approach to reducing nutrient pollution is to ask farmers to pollute less and hope they do so.

The state has sponsored the creation of scientific strategies for the reduction of nutrient pollution through a collaboration between the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the DNR and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. But any compliance with these strategies is completely voluntary.

A strictly voluntary approach is favored by other Midwestern states, as well as the EPA under Pruitt.

“Iowa’s definitely considered a model for improving water quality,” Jake Swanson of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Clean Water Iowa program, told Little Village. “We’re seen as a leader by other states and have been congratulated multiple times by the EPA.”

Asked if Clean Water Iowa had any comment on this year’s record-breaking Gulf dead zone, Swanson said no.

Speaking on Iowa Public Radio on Tuesday, Iowa agriculture secretary Northey did acknowledge the state’s role in creating the dead zone, and said more needs to be done to control nutrient pollution in Iowa’s waterways. He pointed to the planting of cover crops to help minimize soil erosion and fertilizer run-off as a promising strategy, but said cover crops are currently used on only three to four percent of the state’s farmland.

During the radio interview, Northey also acknowledged Iowa is far from meeting the nutrient pollution reduction goals set by a regional task force in 2015. Like everything else about Iowa’s nutrient pollution strategy, meeting those goals is entirely voluntary.

The goals were only set in response to pressure from the EPA during the Obama administration, Osterberg said.

“That’s what the EPA is supposed to do,” Osterberg said. “It’s supposed to look at water quality for all Americans and say we should do better.”

“With Pruitt, what he’s saying is you get to be worse.”