DES MOINES — The head of Iowa’s anti-pollution efforts wants Gov. Terry Branstad to provide $1.3 million to fund 11 state inspectors beginning in July to beef up enforcement and stave off federal threats to take over the activities from state regulators.
Chuck Gipp, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said Wednesday the “special ask” was on top of the $12.5 million status-quo request for fiscal 2014 he presented to the governor during a Statehouse budget hearing.
He said the additional inspectors are needed to monitor livestock operations and other point sources covered under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program authorized in 1972 by the federal Clean Water Act.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are considering whether to ask the state to formally commit to a plan to better meet its enforcement responsibilities in the wake of complaints brought by three Iowa environmental groups about five years ago alleging Iowa regulators have failed to provide adequate enforcement and levy appropriate sanctions against violators.
Gipp said all but five of 31 allegations were found to be without merit or addressed, and his department provided responses to the remaining five concerns in September. Ongoing negotiations are aimed at averting a situation where the EPA would intercede and take over enforcement in Iowa, he noted, and the plan to hire more inspectors is part of the state’s effort to maintain regulatory control.
“Either the EPA does it or we are going to be required to beef that up,” Gipp said. “Obviously, we want it to be state people.”
Federal officials indicated that if DNR officials did not have enough staff to inspect larger livestock production facilities once every five years, Gipp said, “they can develop SWAT-like teams and do it for us. I think our staff and the people we regulate would prefer to have DNR staff there to work to get people into attainment and keep them there rather than play gotcha after the fact.”
The DNR chief also said his agency is disputing criticism that enforcement has been too lax and that penalties on average have been assessed well below the maximum $10,000 fine allowed by Iowa code for violations of anti-pollution standards.
“We have a difference of opinion on that and how it’s best to do it,” Gipp said, noting the state negotiates with violators to attain compliance while EPA provisions would allow fines more than triple the Iowa level.
The governor is conducting budget hearings in anticipation of submitting a two-year spending plan to state legislators in January.
Regarding other challenges facing his agency, Gipp said he hoped the state could find a one-time funding source to pay off about $27 million in bonded indebtedness still outstanding for the construction of the Honey Creek resort in south-central Iowa. Currently, he said, his agency is taking money from the Resource Enhancement and Protection program to cover the yearly bond charges.
Gipp also said public comments during recent discussions of the state park system were positive, although future infrastructure improvements increasingly will have to be funded via private sources. Staffing remains a problem, given the decline of 15 positions since 2008 and significantly fewer seasonal helpers to provide maintenance and upkeep. He also said he expects to enlist more rangers with law enforcement certification, rather than park managers, in urban parks where drugs and other activities are a problem.