AGRICULTURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT. Iowa ready to get tough on groundwater contamination

Contaminated groundwater is fast becoming a mainstream issue in the United States. Last year, California and Arizona passed groundwater laws. Now concern is bubbling up in Iowa. The shift in focus is significant.

While not the first tough measure on groundwater, Iowa's bill is precedent-setting, nevertheless. It is the first proposal in a large farm state to focus on agriculture's contribution to groundwater contamination. Its self-funding mechanism also is unique. Last week the proposal was approved by the Environment and Energy Committee of the Iowa House of Representatives.

``It's a tough bill,'' says state Rep. David Osterberg, a key Democratic backer, who predicts easy passage in the Iowa House. The measure would step up efforts to monitor groundwater quality, establish hazardous-waste disposal and cleanup programs, encourage better fuel storage underground, and boost research for farming methods that use less pesticide and fertilizer.

There are criticisms. ``It really creates a superagency in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources,'' says Ted Yanecek, public affairs counsel for the Iowa Farm Bureau. ``It gives them basically a blank slate and says: `Go at it.'''

But some kind of groundwater legislation is expected this year. ``Everyone wants something done,'' says Judie Hoffman, lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Iowa.

The bill's funding mechanism is its most controversial aspect. It would raise an estimated $11 million a year through a series of user fees and taxes that would affect many groups. Farmers would pay an extra tax on pesticides and fertilizers. Consumers would be charged a 4 percent tax on hazardous household materials, such as paint thinner.

Retailers, who would have to collect the taxes, complain about new burdens. Chemical companies also object. But public concern about groundwater contamination is running very high in Iowa.

``People are more concerned, even [more] than they were two years ago,'' says Don Gingerich, a farmer in Parnell.

When Linn County, Iowa, had a hazardous-waste disposal day last September, officials were amazed at the turnout. Instead of collecting three tons in eight hours, as they expected, they reached their 12-ton capacity in just over two hours.

Other Midwest states are watching Iowa closely, because there is accumulating evidence that the region's drinking water is much more contaminated than once believed, says Larry Morandi, natural resources manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Scientists are discovering that some pesticides and fertilizers move into groundwater much faster than ever before imagined. In August, the Iowa Geological Survey Bureau reported that 39 percent of some 500 wells surveyed were contaminated by pesticides; a quarter of them showed levels of nitrates above federal standards for drinking water.

The implications of these results are not clear. The nitrate contamination, caused by both natural sources and manmade fertilizers, has been linked to a fatal oxygen-deficiency condition in infants known as the ``blue-baby syndrome.''

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is setting standards for 60 chemicals and is petitioning the White House for funds to study even more. But many health officials say the EPA vastly overstates the risk.

Still, supporters of the Iowa bill want preventive action. ``It's not a crisis, but it's a threat,'' says Cindy Hildebrand, of the Iowa Audubon Council. ``And it's a threat that we can count on increasing unless we deal with it.''

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