EPA chief focuses on farmers in first Iowa visit, skips environmental groups

By: - May 4, 2021 6:28 pm

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks outside the Dico Superfund site, which will be the site of a professional soccer stadium. Regan was joined by acting EPA Region 7 Administrator Edward Chu, left; Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon; and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The country’s top environmental official spent his first trip to Iowa largely meeting with farmers, not environmentalists. 

Michael Regan, a former top North Carolina environment official who now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters at a news conference near the Dico Superfund site in Des Moines he will be in no rush to change the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy

He did not sound like a man moving quickly to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus, the two main farm fertilizers causing pollution issues from Iowa’s streams and lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups have long pushed for that, suing at times in unsuccessful attempts to force action. 

Regan described his meeting with farmers at a roundtable near Nevada.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks in Des Moines on May 4, 2021. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

“I talked about the importance of EPA paying attention to the (nutrient reduction) strategy, and just how innovative and entrepreneurial farmers are without being forced to do so,” Regan said.

Asked how he would rank the strategy’s effectiveness, Regan told reporters: “You know, I haven’t looked at it closely. But what I can say is, what I heard today was extremely promising. And I can tell you it’s cutting edge. We applaud that. We applaud the entrepreneurship, and we hope we can partner to make it what we all think it should be.”

Take an ‘honest look’

A reporter asked what Regan would tell environmental groups that consider Iowa’s approach to controlling farm pollution a failure. He replied, “I think what we’re trying to do is use the power of convening, get everyone to the table. And let’s take an honest look at what has been working and what hasn’t been working. I think that we have to be honest about pushing forward on the things that are working and not be afraid to discuss what’s not working, and then we get to the point of discussing what has to happen through a regulatory versus voluntary lens.”

There was no roundtable with environmental organizations, though Kayla Lyon, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, was involved in the visit and shared the lectern with Regan at Dico. Lyon is a former ag lobbyist

Regan also visited the area sewage treatment plant to tour its methane recovery system and other facilities.

He did not meet with officials of nearby Des Moines Water Works, which gained fame for an ill-fated federal lawsuit that attempted to force upstream farmers to do something about runoff pollution.

The utility’s spokeswoman, former Iowa Environmental Council leader Jennifer Terry, was left to watch Regan from among the reporters, EPA staffers and city officials in the audience at Dico. She invited Regan to visit another time. 

 Dico Superfund site headed for cleanup

After nearly four decades as a Superfund eyesore on the edge of Iowa’s capital city, the Dico site should be largely cleaned off by early fall, federal environmental officials and city leaders said Tuesday. The site now is a mish-mash of polluted, windowless, decrepit buildings that once housed metal parts and pesticides.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said the “complicated history” of the site will soon give way to redevelopment. Krause Group, which did not speak from the lectern, plans a professional soccer stadium and related developments on the site.

“We are standing today at the doorstep of growth in greatness for the city of Des Moines,” Cownie said.

The 43-acre site housed a series of manufacturing operations and has groundwater so polluted the EPA will revamp and continue to run a cleanup system and the site will remain capped by concrete and asphalt. Soccer stadiums have been built on other cities’ Superfund site because they don’t pose a risk to the site or to the fans.

Tuesday’s event was held just outside Dico’s fence because the site has not been legally transferred to the city of Des Moines. The transfer, expected soon, is part of a court agreement with the property owners.

Cownie said much of 2022 could be taken up in planning and logistics leading up to development on the site. 

That voluntary framework for soil conservation and water quality focuses on paying farmers to help. Farmers love it. Environmental groups and Democratic state politicians say it hasn’t worked. They point to rising nitrate levels, problems with toxic algae and bacterial pollution at swimming beaches as evidence. They want regulations on pollution instead.

Regan, partly on the advice of former Iowa governor and current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, made visits to two spots that seem almost required for politicians who have never been to Iowa: an ethanol plant and a livestock operation in the Nevada area.

Vilsack, serving his second stint as agriculture secretary, was endorsed by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation as he ran for governor. He pushed hard for water quality improvements as governor and succeeded in increasing monitoring.

Regan discussed biofuels , Superfund cleanups, electric vehicles and “ag’s seat at the table” in a brief meeting with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has strong support from the ag lobby.

Ban Roundup?

When a reporter asked about proposals to ban a main ingredient in Roundup herbicide, Regan took a jab at the Trump administration, which had a rocky relationship with scientists and science at times. 

“What I would say is we’re taking a look at a lot of decisions that were made over the past three or four years. My pledge is that science will lead the way. We’re going to trust the experts at EPA. We’re taking a look at all decisions that were made during the previous administration and where scientific integrity was lacking. We’re going to take another look at it.” 


Renewable Fuel Standard

Regan said EPA is working on setting federal requirements for refineries to buy biodiesel and ethanol.

“I’ll be honest with you. The last team (the Trump administration) left us in a little bit of a deficit … We’re working on a strategy for how we can make up for lost time, but have integrity in the system so that when we come up with a product, we’re not legally vulnerable for skipping steps,” Regan said. 

He also addressed ethanol interests’ concern that President Joe Biden’s push for electric vehicles could mean trouble for the biofuels industry. “Honestly, they can co-exist,” Regan said. “There is a critical role for biofuels and advanced biofuels for the foreseeable future … The president has made it very clear that agriculture has a seat at the table, and we’re very interested in advanced biofuels.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.