A top regional EPA official has taken Nebraska Ag Director Greg Ibach to task for calling the federal agency "the biggest regulatory problem” facing agriculture and for the exclusion of an EPA representative from a state pesticide planning meeting.

In a three-page letter to Ibach dated Friday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks called statements the state ag director made about proposed water regulations untrue and said those words undermined the EPA’s relationship with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and producers in the state.

During a conference call with reporters last month, Ibach criticized the EPA on several issues, including a proposal to change the Renewable Fuels Standard and a regulation update known as “Waters of the United States.” The waters rule, being offered by both the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would clarify federal regulations under the Clean Water Act. Critics have called it a power grab with far-reaching implications for farmers.

During the same news conference last month, Gov. Dave Heineman called the EPA the “enemy of agriculture.”

This week, Ibach fired back at the EPA's Brooks, calling the letter an overreaction.

“We have a right and a duty to weigh in on federal policy issues during the policy determination process," he said during an interview on Wednesday. "He should allow us that right without trying to suggest what we’re doing in some way, shape or form is inappropriate.”

His criticism of national issues shouldn't reflect on the regulatory-level relationships between the two agencies, he said.

“We value the relationship on the implementation side with Region 7. We really don’t feel that our comments at the press conference had anything to do with that interface we have with Region 7."

That relationship took a hit when the state Ag Department told Lincoln-based EPA employee Dick Wiechman, who specializes in pesticides, not to attend an Aug. 20 planning meeting to revise Nebraska's pesticide and water resources management plan.

“The department’s decision to exclude my Region 7 colleague … from a pesticides planning meeting didn’t seem to me to serve the goals of partnership,” Brooks said this week, “which I thought was unfortunate given his professionalism and the knowledge he has of Nebraska production agriculture and chemicals.”

Wiechman is a Nebraska native and spent many years working in agriculture, including 11 years for the state Ag Department, before joining the EPA nine years ago.

Brooks said he asked Assistant Ag Director Bobbie Kriz-Wickham and Ibach to reconsider excluding Wiechman but was rebuffed.

Ibach said the state process for vetting the proposed rule changes had not progressed far enough to warrant including the EPA. The Aug. 20 meeting, he said, was only for such interested parties as producers, industry groups and environmental and conservation interests.

“We felt that was something we could handle without actually having Region 7 EPA officials actually be present, especially because it wasn’t a decision-making meeting, it was more of a comment-gathering meeting,” Ibach said.

Kriz-Wickham said the proposed policy would guide how the state handles findings of pesticide residue in Nebraska water. She said an informal comment period is underway now, and a formal 60-day comment period will start in October.

Once the revisions have been vetted in the state, it will be presented to the EPA, Ibach said.

The EPA provides about 75 percent of the funds the state Ag Department spends on pesticide programs, amounting to $6.3 million in federal money over the past 10 years. The EPA also has provided $15 million in the past five years to support pollution prevention efforts essential to agriculture and water quality, Brooks said in the letter.

He said the funding has not been jeopardized. 

Brooks invited Ibach and state Department of Environmental Quality Director Pat Rice to make suggestions on how the EPA could support state agencies.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ljsbergin.

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