Iowa court sides with environmental groups, overrules DNR

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The wastewater treatment plant in Clarion, Iowa, exceeded its permit standards for ammonia and E. coli bacteria.

DES MOINES – An Iowa district court has ruled the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (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 ruling, handed down late last week by Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Michael Huppert, is the first legal case addressing the enforcement of the anti-degradation standards since the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the standards in 2014.

In 2014 the city of Clarion submitted to the DNR a project design to expand its wastewater treatment plant. Iowa’s anti-degradation standards require polluters seeking permits to consider alternative treatments that reduce pollution and implement those treatments where appropriate.

There was an alternative design that would reduce pollution – which Clarion’s own analysis deemed both practical and affordable – but it was eliminated in favor of a less-expensive design based on costs alone. Despite its responsibility to enforce Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, the DNR allowed Clarion to choose the least expensive option without fully considering the environmental improvement from the alternative, pollution-reducing design.

Following the DNR’s approval of the Clarion project, the Environmental Law and Policy Center filed a petition for judicial review in state district court on behalf of the Iowa Environmental Council.

Iowa Fifth District Court Judge Michael Huppert
Iowa Fifth District Court Judge Michael Huppert

Judge Huppert found that under Iowa’s anti-degradation standards, a higher-cost project design could be implemented if it would have a substantial environmental benefit. His ruling reverses the DNR’s decision and requires the agency to revisit its analysis and account for environmental benefits of less-polluting project designs.

In his opinion, Huppert noted that “economic efficiency involves a comparison between costs and environmental benefit.” Reviewing the DNR decision, he said that “no such analysis appears in the final alternative analysis at even a rudimentary level.”

The environmental groups who challenged the DNR’s decision praised Huppert’s ruling.

“We are pleased that the court protected the integrity of Iowa’s clean water anti-degradation standards,” said Ralph Rosenberg, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.

“This ruling confirms that consideration of environmental benefits is not optional, and they need to be considered as part of the anti-degradation process,” explains Environmental Law and Policy Center attorney Josh Mandelbaum. “The court’s ruling sends a strong message to DNR that they can’t skirt the consideration of environmental benefits simply by relying on cost.”

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.

“Iowa needed solid anti-degradation standards, and we worked hard to get strong but reasonable rules,” Rosenberg said. “DNR was omitting important aspects of those standards. 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.”

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.

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