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EPA chief praises nutrient plan

Thursday, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, made the Iowa State Fair her first trip destination after starting her job three weeks ago.

Like many visitors, she had praise for the quality of pork chops sold on the fairgrounds, but she also left no doubt that she likes Iowa's voluntary nutrient management plan aimed at reducing excess crop nutrients by 45%.

"It is a gigantic step forward," McCarthy said at a lunch sponsored by Hagie Manufacturing to honor 63 farmers given environmental leader awards by the state of Iowa.

The plan, McCarthy said, is "using commonsense, step-by-step approaches to make progress."

McCarthy also had praise for the state officials she met with at the Fair, including Governor Terry Branstad and Bill Northey, agriculture secretary.

"We have a wonderful relationship between the state of Iowa and the EPA," she said.

Besides regulating sources of water contamination under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is also charged with administering the Renewable Fuel Standard of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

When Branstad introduced McCarthy at the Farm Bureau Picnic Shelter on the fairgrounds, he said, "We are especially appreciative of the Renewable Fuel Standard," calling it critically important for the state's 41 ethanol refineries. The RFS sets the levels of ethanol and other biofuels that must be blended into petroleum-based fuels.

McCarthy left the Picnic Shelter a few minutes after speaking and didn't take questions from the media. She's in the middle of many contentious issues vital to agriculture. Just this week, the American Petroleum Institute and American Fuel and Petrochemical Refiners petitioned the EPA to reduce the RFS in 2014, citing a gasoline market already saturated with 10% ethanol, the so-called blend wall.

Some environmental groups are also critical of the way EPA administers Clean Water Act regulations over agriculture, especially permitting for large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Representatives of Iowa Sierra Club and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement planned to meet with McCarthy and another EPA official Thursday to "push them to hold Iowa's factory farms accountable for Clean Water Act violations."

Iowa's crop farmers aren't yet regulated in the same way as CAFOs, and it's the hope of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Northey that the voluntary nutrient management plan will help farmers avoid that.

"We don't want to pretend like this is an easy thing. It's a hard thing," Northey told "Iowa is a big state with millions of acres."

But the Iowa legislature has appropriated more money than any other state to encourage participation in practices that could reduce nutrient loss. The state will spend between $1 million and $1.5 million this year on cost-sharing for those practices, he said. Only farmers who haven't used them are eligible. Cost-sharing will cover $25 an acre on up to 160 acres for cover crops, $10 an acre for strip-tillage or no-till, and $3 an acre or using nitrogen inhibitors.

The grants have been available for about a week.

"We're getting a good reception. We're going to have several tens of thousands of acres of cost-share for cover crops," he said.

Northey said he believes the voluntary plan will encourage more on-farm innovation than would regulations. And long legal battles over regulations won't clean the water, he said.

Farmer participation in the nutrient management plan is the key to avoiding more regulations. "I don't know how it all plays out," Northey said.

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