Iowa judge upholds 2010 water quality rule


DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa judge has upheld water quality regulations that business and farm groups say are costly and burdensome.

The rules require anyone with new or expanded wastewater discharges into waterways to go through a review process and seek permits and certification from the state. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and others say the regulations will be a hassle and increase their costs.

Their lawsuit, however, focuses on the way the Environmental Protection Commission enacted the rules. They say its vote was invalid because one commissioner had a conflict of interest and another wasn't qualified to vote because she had moved to Montana.

Polk County District Court Judge Mary Pat Gunderson ruled last week that the commissioners' votes were valid and the rules were properly enacted.

The case centered on the votes of EPC members Carrie La Seur and Susan Heathcote, both appointed by former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.

La Seur was appointed to the commission in May 2009 but moved to Montana two months later. She voted for the new rule in December 2009.

The lawsuit claims that since La Seur had moved to Montana and registered to vote there, she was no longer an Iowa elector, which is a requirement to serve on the commission.

Gunderson, however, concluded that moving did not lessen La Seur's qualifications to serve as a commission member and therefore her vote was valid under a longstanding legal doctrine that allows the actions of public officials to be valid even though some defect or irregularity may surface in their appointment or election.

Heathcote worked for the Iowa Environmental Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that focuses on water quality, when she voted for the regulation as a commission member.

The lawsuit claims she had a conflict of interest because her employer lobbies stricter water quality rules.

Gunderson concluded that Heathcote's vote was proper. She said the governor and the Iowa Senate found no conflict when Heathcote was appointed and confirmed for the commission post.

The rules in question were adopted after the Environmental Protection Agency sent Iowa letters in 1997 and 1999 saying the state's water quality policies did not comply with the federal requirements.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources began holding hearings in 2008. The rules were approved in December 2009 by the commission and adopted in February 2010. The EPA signed off on the rules in September 2010.

The next month Farm Bureau and other business groups filed the lawsuit.

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club of Iowa and the IEC applauded the judge's ruling.

"It's a major victory for water quality in Iowa," said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental advocacy group. "These rules are designed to protect public health and to protect our waterways and the uses of those waterways whether it's making them safe for outdoor recreation or safe for drinking water."

The Farm Bureau's government relations counsel said an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court was likely. Christina Gruenhagen said public officials who move out of state and someone who works for a special interest group lobbying for a rule shouldn't vote.

"There are just some fundamental questions about procedures and the process that were used here," Gruenhagen said.

The Farm Bureau also believes portions of the new rules were not required and only increase the costs and regulatory burdens on businesses, communities, and farms.

"We believe that on the ground efforts watershed by watershed in local communities is what is going to help us address our water quality challenges," Gruenhagen said. "Creating new legal burdens on Iowa communities doesn't really advance the ball on improving our water quality."