Environmental groups rake DNR, EPA leniency on rules; businesses in favor

The Des Moines River, shown here in downtown Des Moines, is a key water source for about 500,000 people in Central Iowa. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Twin actions by federal and state environmental regulators to ease up on monitoring and enforcement during the COVID-19 outbreak has Iowa environmental groups fearing governments are using the virus to further an anti-regulation campaign that could itself cost lives.

A key business organization says the moves are warranted and wise. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week clarified that any leniency would be only for businesses that could prove COVID-19 was directly responsible for the issue, and mostly involving monitoring requirements.

The environmental groups are leery, especially of EPA. As a candidate, President Trump ran on a platform of disbanding the agency entirely and has moved to rollback many environmental regulations.

They fear businesses are using the virus outbreak as a tool to advance their goals to reduce regulations more broadly.

It’s common for business organizations to push environmental regulators to reduce restrictions during a recession or disaster. In Iowa, the governor often lets trucking companies exceed normal truck weight limits or allows drivers to be on the road longer than usual, for example. 

But what has happened in the COVID-19 outbreak is unusual by historical standards.

Last week, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources announced a long list of postponements of fine payments, reporting, license renewal deadlines. The agency announced that hog confinements — already drawing criticism for having so many hogs in one place — could double the number of hogs in the barns if necessary.

However, DNR assured Iowans that if someone is threatening their health while the pandemic rolls on, the state will take enforcement action.

Then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week announced what the New York Times called “a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing power plants, factories and other facilities to determine for themselves if they are able to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution.”

That brought quick protests from Iowa environmental groups and a citizens’ organization.

Environmental group: Move is a pollution ‘free for all’

The Iowa Environmental Council, the state’s largest coalition of nonprofit environmental groups, called the move a pollution “free-for-all.”

“Clean air and water are critical to public health. A health crisis is no time for the EPA to allow a pollution free-for-all that results in further environmental health threats,” said Kerri Johannsen, the council’s energy program director. “The EPA needs to reevaluate this decision,” said Johannsen.

Kerri Johannsen, Iowa Environmental Council (Photo courtesy of the council)

“Relaxation of oversight should be done with a scalpel instead of a bulldozer to provide appropriate — and temporary — regulatory relief without wholly dismantling environmental reporting and enforcement, without even a date to revisit this decision,” Johannsen added.

Her colleague addressing water quality issues, Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, also had concerns. 

“Clean water is a critical necessity for the operation of our health care system and to provide sanitary conditions to help Americans stop the spread of this virus,” Anderson said. “Dereliction of clean water oversight could result in a compounded public health crisis. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that vulnerable and at-risk populations are protected from pollutants and other threats that can exacerbate health problems and drive more people into the health care system.”

State and environmental regulators have said water utilities still must assure tap water is safe.

Former DNR director advises scrutiny

Former DNR director Richard Leopold said there is always a risk of regulated businesses pushing their agendas to ease rules they see as bad for the bottom line. He said 

“As the former Iowa DNR director, I can say that I feel these types of policies (to suspend regulations) are sometimes unnecessary,” said Leopold, who previously ran the Iowa Environmental Council. Leopold said his thoughts are his own and unrelated to his current job as Polk County Conservation director. 

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson is water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

“The loosening of regulations related to private citizens’ concerns such as mortgages, utilities, etc., are appropriate to help out people during this crisis, but most businesses are not in any fiscal regulatory danger that I know of due to COVID-19,” Leopold said. “This federal administration has shown itself to be hostile toward environmental regulation and the Environmental Protection Agency, and these actions deserve heavy scrutiny. 

“As to the Iowa DNR’s actions, I would again advise scrutiny,” Leopold said. “Their employees are working largely from home offices and protecting critical functions, such as drinking water protection, so some reallocation of human resources is understandable. As with driver’s license and property tax deadlines, some grace and extensions may be necessary for businesses, although unrelated relaxing of environmental regulations should remain under scrutiny. And yes, we in the environmental field always worry about backsliding becoming the new standard operating practice, and must be ever vigilant.”

President Trump’s choices for EPA administrator have been criticized by environmentalists as too close to industry. Current Administrator Andrew Wheeler previously lobbied for coal interests. At the beginning of his career, he had worked for EPA as a special assistant under President George H.W. Bush.

Advocate: Easing rules is a ‘horrible’ idea

Adam Mason, state policy director for the nonprofit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, opposed the moves. He used the DNR’s announcement to restore CCI’s call for a six-month moratorium on hog confinement construction, a proposal so unpopular among lawmakers that related legislation was shelved before the session was suspended due to virus outbreak. 

Adam Mason, state policy director for nonprofit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, speaks in favor of a moratorium on livestock confinement construction at a Statehouse rally on Jan. 23. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

“This is a horrible idea,” Mason said of the temporary easing of rules. “Using this crisis as a license to pollute from EPA or DNR, whether it is (animal confinements), oil pipelines or fuel refineries, is a handout to big business from those in charge of our government, plain and simple.

“We are very concerned that this will be a move towards permanency” of easing rules, Mason added. “These kinds of pushes for deregulation and ‘self-monitoring’ by businesses have been around for decades. And we see it across every industry.”

In a March 26 statement, EPA said “we are first and foremost mindful of the health and safety of the public” and the federal staff. 

But EPA noted that the stay-at-home nature of the COVID-19 response and private layoffs could make it hard for businesses to get lab results and report to EPA on time. So some monitoring rules would be relaxed, but the EPA would still expect compliance with regulations. 

EPA says only COVID-related violations are affected

National news accounts suggesting a general pullback by EPA led the agency to release another statement Monday. It read in part:

“The policy says that EPA will not seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting requirements, if, on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” EPA reported. “Regulated parties must document the basis for any claim that the pandemic prevented them from conducting that routine monitoring and reporting and present it to EPA upon request. This action was necessary to avoid tying up EPA staff time with questions about routine monitoring and reporting requirements and instead allow EPA to focus on continued protection of human health and the environment.”

After calling out several national news agencies for what it considered misleading reports, EPA added: “The policy does not say that the COVID-19 pandemic will excuse exceedances of pollutant limitations in permits, regulations, and statutes.”

“EPA expects regulated entities to comply with all obligations and if they do not, the policy says that EPA will consider the pandemic, on a case-by-case basis, when determining an appropriate response. Further, in cases that may involve acute risks or imminent threats, or failure of pollution control or other equipment that may result in exceedances, EPA’s willingness to provide even that consideration is conditioned on the facility contacting the appropriate EPA region, or authorized state or tribe, to allow regulators to work with that facility to mitigate or eliminate such risks or threats,” the statement said. “The EPA expects all regulated entities to continue to manage and operate their facilities in a manner that is safe and that protects the public and the environment.”

Business group says EPA response is appropriate

J.D. Davis, vice president for public policy for the Iowa Association of Business Industry, which represents some of Iowa’s largest manufacturers, cited EPA guidelines that ask companies to “make every effort” to comply with regulations. If they can’t comply, they are asked to meet the regulations as soon as possible.

J.D. Davis is the vice president of public policy for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. (Photo courtesy of Iowa ABI)

“You can see that the new guidelines require each regulated entity to take all reasonable measures to comply with current regulatory guidelines before they opt to follow the temporary EPA guidelines,” Davis said. 

He added that businesses have to record their noncompliance if they violate rules. “The regulated community very much anticipates a full review of how they performed during this period,” Davis said. 

Is the leniency on monitoring necessary? It is, Davis said.

“We believe the EPA guidance accurately responds to the stress that may be placed on the regulated community and importantly on regulators as we respond to COVID-19,” Davis said. “The guidance was put in place in recognition that social distancing and reductions in force for employers and regulators may make normal compliance and regulatory monitoring unachievable.”

“These actions will help allow industries critical to the economy to continue operation providing essential goods and services during our nation’s response to COVID-19,” Davis said. “The EPA actions will also allow regulatory agencies to adapt their workforce to COVID-19 response and recovery. 

“Most importantly, we are in the middle of a public health crisis that is also very disruptive economically,” David added. “ABI member employers will be key in leading the economic recovery in Iowa as we inevitably turn the corner on our response to the virus.”