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Judge: Suit over farm pollution of Raccoon River may proceed

By DAVID PITTSeptember 12, 2019

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A judge has handed a significant victory to environmental groups by allowing a lawsuit challenging Iowa’s management of fertilizer and hog farm pollution in rivers and streams to move forward.

Judge Robert Hanson in a ruling filed Wednesday said Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch may proceed to trial in their effort to prove the state’s policy of expanding hog farms and voluntary farm pollution controls is violating the rights of citizens to clean water in the Raccoon River for recreational and drinking water uses.

The 31-mile tributary of the Des Moines River is a primary source of drinking water for about 500,000 central Iowa customers of Des Moines Water Works. The river has exceeded federal safe drinking water nitrate limits on occasion for the past decade and the groups said in court documents “such risks will increase as precipitation cycles increase due to climate change,”

Des Moines Water Works invests significant resources in maintaining its nitrate removal system, which when built in 1992 was one of the largest in the world.

The lawsuit asks for the court to order mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinement facilities and a declaration that the state is violating its duty owed to the people of Iowa.

Iowa is the nation’s leading pork producer with more than 23 million pigs on farms.

Hanson said the groups have demonstrated sufficiently that they suffer injury because the untreated water of the Raccoon River is too polluted to enjoy recreationally or aesthetically.

“The Raccoon River is arguably in such a poor state due to the state’s inaction in enforcing the state’s pollution requirements without restriction. They are likely to be unable to use the Raccoon River in any reasonable, functional manner, without heavy water treatment,” he said, assuming the facts presented so far are true.

Des Moines Water Works has fought for years to limit the nitrate levels coming from upstream farms. A federal lawsuit it filed in 2015 against upstream counties regulating farm tile drains was dismissed before trial.

More recently, the water utility has warned about elevated levels of blue-green algae and related bacterial toxins in the river that when found in large enough quantities can sicken humans and animals. Phosphorous from city wastewater treatment plants, livestock farms and plant fertilizer are usually the cause.

A spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office said the state is reviewing the ruling and considering next steps.

Spokesmen for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said they would not comment on the decision.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau, the state’s leading farm advocacy group didn’t immediately reply to a message.

“To me, this lawsuit is about guaranteeing clean water as a human right,” said Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement member Kim Stephens, of Nevada. “I should not have to worry about if the water my children come into contact with is clean.”

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