Des Moines to Sue Over Dead Zone-Causing Pollution

Bill Stowe of DMWW on the Raccoon river
Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, on the Raccoon River. Courtesy Iowa Environmental Council

Big Dead Zone news out of Iowa. The Des Moines Water Works has decided to move forward with a lawsuit against three Iowa Counties for the pollution they are dumping into Des Moines’ drinking water. This is the same pollution that causes the Gulf Dead Zone. Here is a statement from the Mississippi River Collaborative:

Tuesday’s unanimous decision by the Board of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) to sue three rural counties upstream of the city’s drinking water intake system should be echoing throughout the halls of the US EPA’s Office of Water.

In the lawsuit, DMWW accuses the heavily agricultural upstream counties of violating the Clean Water Act by failing to obtain permits to limit nitrate pollution from their drainage systems. It further states that these violations have caused elevated, potentially dangerous levels of nitrates in the water which DMWW must treat – at great expense to its customers – in order to provide clean drinking water to 500,000 people in central Iowa.

This action comes during the first winter ever in which the City of Des Moines had to continuously run its multi-million dollar nitrate removal plant, a plant which is rapidly becoming insufficient to deal with increasing nitrate levels.

“The lawsuit raises important questions about the threat of nitrate pollution from agricultural drainage districts to drinking water downstream,” said Susan Heathcote, Water Policy Director for Iowa Environmental Council, “as well as the failure of Iowa’s all-voluntary nutrient reduction strategy to achieve the reductions necessary for cleaner water.”

Which is where EPA enters the picture. So far, the federal water quality agency has left it to the states to combat the problem of nitrate pollution, requiring only that states develop and implement their own nutrient reduction strategies and counting on that to be enough.

Not by a long shot, says Ann Alexander, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “EPA’s relentless avoidance of the problem has resulted in the vast majority of states simply punting on it as well,” Alexander wrote, citing data from last September’s report by the Office of the Inspector General, EPA’s own internal watchdog.

Since 2008, the Mississippi River Collaborative has pressured EPA to establish federal standards for water quality relating to nitrogen and phosphorus. In 2012, MRC groups successfully sued EPA for denial of its petition for the agency to take action, citing decades of failure. EPA has since appealed the decision.

With communities like Des Moines having to resort to legal battles to protect its citizens’ own drinking water, EPA may not be able to wash its hands of the issue much longer.

Good for Des Moines. Polluters, no matter the sector, should not be allowed to externalize their environmental costs.


Matt is GRN’s Senior Policy Director


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