Iowa Tank Deal Debated

Owners should not have to pay for damage that could have come from other sources

DES MOINES, Iowa -- A lawyer for one of Iowa's most powerful environmental groups criticized the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for whittling away protections for water wells under a deal backed by convenience store interests, reported The Des Moines Register.

"The DNR again has been manhandled by the polluters," said Wallace Taylor, a Cedar Rapids attorney representing the Iowa Chapter of Sierra Club, told the newspaper.

But the governor-appointed Iowa Environmental Protection Commission ignored Taylor's pleas to stop the deal. Instead, the body [image-nocss] voted unanimously to approve the agreement abandoning new rules that would have required owners of underground petroleum storage tanks, notably c-store chains such as Casey's and Kum & Go, to pay for more monitoring of gasoline plumes near water wells.

In place of more regulation, the commission agreed to a five-year study of the problem that will cost up to $1.5 million, said the report. The research will be paid for with fees paid by motorists at the pump, not tank owners or their private insurers.

Board members who oversee that legislature-appointed tank fund had argued that more research will ensure the wells are protected, while saving tank owners unnecessary expense. But the deal also carried another controversial element: The DNR, which regulates those who have underground storage tanks, would also receive $385,000 to bolster its own monitoring from the tank fund board, which includes c-store interests, when it passed.

Commission Chairman Henry Marquard of Muscatine sought at the start the meeting to sort through the controversy, which was two years in the making. "I'm seriously disturbed over the fact that there is a public perception, whether accurate or not, that DNR is trading pollution standards for funds," Marquard said in asking the staff for an explanation.

The Register reported that workers in the DNR's UST section, those closest to the environmental protection work, had expressed concern that c-store interests were using the $385,000 donation to the state agency to scrap the rule.

Tim Hall, who represented DNR Director Richard Leopold on the tank-fund board over months of negotiations, said in an interview with the paper that he considered the deal "disconcerting."

But Douglas Beech, a lawyer for Casey's General Stores and a tank-fund board member, said last week that tank owners should not have to pay for environmental damage that could have come from other sources. Store owners also doubted the costly monitoring would turn up actual pollution threats at wells near the plumes. More research should solve that question, Beech said, according to the report.

The $385,000 the tank fund will give to the DNR is the latest in a series of annual payments to the state agency, and three times greater than one made last year, the report said.

The DNR recommended that the deal receive commission approval. But Wayne Gieselman, the state's environmental protection chief, denied the agency succumbed to industry pressure. "This was not caving in to the [tank fund board] or the private insurers," he told the paper. "This was coming up with Plan B that properly protects public water supplies" while addressing the concerns of the tank owners. "You can argue the conspiracy theory, but I don't buy that," he added.