DES MOINES — The newly appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday the only way to confront climate-change challenges and environmental problems facing agriculture is for farmers and government agencies to work together.
Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator for three weeks, said she accepted Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s invitation to the Iowa State Fair to celebrate steps Iowa is taking to control the runoff of farm fertilizer and manure.
Her brief speech was positive and repeatedly stressed the theme of collaboration. She declined to take questions from reporters and left the Iowa Farm Bureau building on the state fairgrounds after posing for a few photos without further comment.
“The challenge today is just to stop arguing about the problem and really start driving solutions,” she said in the speech.
She said President Barack Obama will continue to speak out about climate change and ways to deal with its impact — including the possibility of more frequent droughts and floods, problems Iowa farmers are familiar with.
She promised that by the end of her tenure at the EPA, the relationship between the agency and the agriculture community will be more productive and trusting.
McCarthy’s visit coincides with her agency putting pressure on Iowa to improve its enforcement of federal clean water regulations. EPA and Iowa officials have been meeting for months to negotiate an enforcement plan after the agency threatened to take over and crack down on farms that allow manure and fertilizer to wash into lakes and streams.
Some of Iowa’s major rivers have seen record nitrate levels this spring, the result of heavy rain and flooding that washed leftover fertilizer and manure out of farm fields.
Environmental groups are angered that Branstad’s administration is allowing powerful farm lobby groups, including the Farm Bureau and pork producers, to attend the meetings, saying they’re influencing the negotiations.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement said implementation of the state’s new nutrient management plan lacks require needed regular inspections of livestock farms and doesn’t have strong enough enforcement measures.
The group insisted on meeting with McCarthy to provide their input on the plan. She met with ICCI, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Iowa Sierra Club briefly at the airport in Des Moines before departing Thursday.
The groups said they pushed her to “hold Iowa’s factory farms accountable for Clean Water Act violations.” ICCI member Cherie Mortice said the discussion included hog confinement operations and how human error can cause major manure leaks into streams.
She said they also spoke with McCarthy about 628 polluted water bodies in Iowa and 8,000 animal confinement operations in the state. Mortice said McCarthy seemed surprised by the figures.
“I would say her demeanor and body language said to us she was impacted by stories and our experience and the utter disappointment we felt in terms of the lack of regulation of this industry,” Mortice said.
Tarah Heinzen, attorney for the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, said any inspection process that fails to require clean water permits for large-scale livestock farms will not adequately protect water quality in Iowa.
Branstad said in an interview after McCarthy’s speech that he’s pleased she’s meeting with the environmental groups, saying that’s the kind of exchange that should be taking place instead of harsh criticism or disruption of meetings.