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Editorial: Iowa needs to strengthen environmental standards

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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Iowa was recently cited in an Environmental Protection Agency report as one of 12 states that need to improve their execution in monitoring and developing methods to reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Mississippi River. This is not a list Iowa wants to be on.

Agriculture production is a significant portion of Iowa’s economy. Ethanol and corn are especially vital as Iowa is the nation’s largest producer of these commodities. Therefore, agricultural-nutrient pollution has become not only a moral problem but an economical one as well.

Some of this pollution results from pipeline spills, and Iowa’s record on the subject has been far from flawless. Iowa has had 100 pipeline spills since 2004 that have resulted in nearly $20 million in property damage. The main contaminants include anhydrous ammonia and propane.

Iowa needs to find a way to improve this record and decrease pollution, but there are potential threats on the horizon. A Texas energy company seeks approval to build a 1,100-mile pipeline carrying crude oil across 17 Iowa counties. Given the previous spills, this pipeline must be held to a greater standard, and the state needs to make sure such companies are held accountable for any spills. This can be accomplished through increasing pipeline standards for approval. But the pipeline itself has proven controversial. Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, the Democratic candidate for governor, even went as far as to say the pipeline was “eminent domain for a private business.”

Another source of pollution comes through the fertilizers farmers use to enhance the quality of their crops. One way to encourage farmers to decrease the amount of fertilizers they use is through cost-share subsidies. These subsidies reward farmers who have found ways to cut down on the use of pollutants. The Legislature has allocated more than $4 million to these subsidies.

As containments from fertilizers and spills make their way into the soil and water systems, Iowa’s water quality suffers. Some describe it as a balancing act between agriculture and water quality.

High amounts of fertilizer for crops as well as animal manure contributes to a challenge in retaining suitable water quality. These are facts that Iowans do not want to think about as they turn their tap water on in the sink. To combat this, the Legislature has set aside almost $45 million since 2013 for improving water quality.

Minnesota has emerged as the frontrunner in terms of laying out a clear strategy for decreasing the use of pollutants. Its plan is a 20 percent decrease in nitrogen and 25 percent in phosphorus by 2025. While the plan spans a decade, it provides valuable benchmarks that can be used to hold the state accountable.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that while Iowa has clearly made an effort to improve environmental standards throughout the state, there is a need for more, especially given the recent EPA report. Pollution is not only a factor of protecting our environment, but it also represents a very real risk to our health and agriculture production. Agricultural-nutrient pollution is not a topic that most people will pay attention to every day, which means that a timetable for decreasing pollutants is absolutely necessary to track progress. Iowa should follow Minnesota’s lead in establishing an actionable plan for reduction.


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