Muscatine, Iowa (File photo / Midwest Energy News)
Residents of an Iowa county that has made national headlines for its struggles with air pollution will now receive electronic warnings when air quality poses a health hazard.
The warnings in Muscatine County will be issued to county residents who sign up for a free text or email service. The messaging system was approved unanimously on Monday by Muscatine County’s board of supervisors and will also include warnings for flash floods, measles outbreaks and other health hazards, plus information on school and road closures.
Kas Kelly led the county’s ad hoc committee that researched the early alert system. She’s the chair of the county board of supervisors and said the issue was brought up after an April 2 alert issued by the state air quality bureau.
“We quickly realized that we already had everything at our fingertips in order to notify the entire county,” she said. “We could accomplish this without spending one dollar of tax money.” →
Note: Ken Paulman is off this week. B. Adam Burke, Jeff Kart and Molly Priesmeyer will be guest posting.
My picks for the most promising green energy news items from the past week:
1. Are we fueling ourselves on ethanol? Ethanol tax credits may be dissolved early in a US Senate compromise announced Thursday. Corn ethanol is barely green, many call it unsustainable, and subsidies aren’t needed when high gas prices make biofuels almost profitable.
2. The European Union takes hard look at biodidesel. Reuters published findings from some leaked papers studying biodiesel in the EU. Negative climate impact and land-use effects from growing and manufacturing biodiesel were found to largely cancel out its benefits.
3. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that in the first quarter of 2011 all “renewable” energies provided more BTUs of energy than nuclear. There’s some valid argument over why we’d compare BTUs of nukes when we might compare electricity production but it’s just like when the stock market hits a round number. It’s the idea of it- renewables beats nukes. What’s next? Fossil fuels.
4. EPA rule will cause coal plants to cleanup or close down. As old coal closes up shop, new energy will be needed. While natural gas is the front-runner to replace dirtier coal, it’s a tough sell when its steep climate impact is considered.
5. Investors are officially giddy for green-tech. One investment manager says alt-energies are getting close to an “economic tipping point,” making them competitive with traditional and fossil-fuel technologies.
In his comeback, infamous investor Gordon Gekko tells his protégé Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), “Green is the new bubble,” and he doesn’t need to do too much convincing. From the start of the movie LaBeouf ‘s character is hyping a hydrogen fusion experiment that his scientist friend has cooked up.
"What are you, some kind of energy freedom fighter?"
While we probably won’t see any hydrogen fusion power plants being proposed anytime soon these promising signs point to greener and cleaner energy in the days ahead.
The meeting between GPC and Clean Air Muscatine (CLAM), an activist group that formed this year, began with a short presentation by Janet Sichterman, VP of Human Resources and Communications at GPC’s parent company Muscatine Foods Corporation.
Sichterman gave her company’s history and then introduced Durham, who gave a detailed presentation on GPC’s plans to build a $75 million grain dryer. The new dryer house will eliminate 11 other dryers at the corn mill and is scheduled to be online in 2014. A $20 million upgrade to emissions controls for coal-burning is expected to be ready in early 2015.
The company has projected their total emissions in Muscatine will be reduced 72 percent by 2015 and 82 percent by 2020.
Durham tried to deflect some criticism by pointing to shifting pollution standards that he felt have forced polluters to guess at regulations and air quality standards.
The dryer house project has been through a three-year permitting process and the dryer unit can’t be purchased until permits are complete.
CLAM members have maintained a skeptical stance since GPC’s announcement about the cleanup project.
After some heated discussion, Sichterman told the group, “I’m hearing the enormous amount of frustration in the room.” She said she had come to listen to the group’s concerns and that the company was working on marketing its message about the upgrades.
CLAM president Sandy Stanley told the group, “Our anger should be directed at public officials,” including county and local representatives. She also reminded her group that GPC was only one of the polluters in the area.
Putting her company on record, Sichterman declared, “In 2015, the smell will be gone, the haze will be gone…We’re saying it clearly.”
When asked by Karl Reichert if GPC was a good corporate neighbor, without hesitation Sichterman said, “Absolutely. We are going to do our part,” but, she added, “I wish we could change the past.”
While admitting his own frustration with the pace of permits for the project, Durham said, “This is the fastest we can do it.” He also admitted that, “It’s impossible to eliminate it [air pollution] 100 percent.”
After listening to the data-heavy pitch, Lynda Smith, a life-long Muscatine resident who suffers from COPD, said, “Clean air isn’t numbers. You know it when you breathe it.”
Muscatine, Iowa (photo by Adam Burke for Midwest Energy News)
An Iowa town with the worst air quality in the state is again under EPA scrutiny after years of maintaining allowable air pollution levels.
But plans to clean up emissions from burning coal won’t be adopted for several years, leaving residents in a haze of regulation and red tape.
Last month, the EPA declared Iowa’s pollution-fighting plans “substantially inadequate” for maintaining fine particulate matter standards in Muscatine, an industrial town on the Mississippi River.
The state has 18 months to craft new plans for EPA approval, and then local industry will have another two years to install equipment or decrease production and reduce emissions. Not meeting pollution standards can lead to withheld federal funding and, eventually, a federal implementation plan that comes directly from the EPA instead of the state.
The EPA’s action comes just a few months after the agency voided almost two years of Muscatine’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) monitor data due to faulty equipment, which may postpone a ruling on the status for those emissions standards. The agency requires three years of data to determine whether standards are being met.
Results from air modeling software could be submitted to the EPA to prove a violation (also called “non-attainment”) of air quality standards, but some state officials are resistant to the idea.
So despite new, stricter SO2 measures that could reveal violations of the Clean Air Act, Muscatine may get a pass from the EPA until new data or models are produced.
Airing it out
Jennifer Bower has already made up her mind about Muscatine’s air. “It stinks,” she said, adding she can smell it miles outside of town.
Bower has suffered from asthma for over a decade after moving from Des Moines to Muscatine. She’s convinced the polluted air caused her breathing condition, which she said began after just a year of living in the coal-dependent town of 22,700.
She believes that “the safest place” is inside her home, because she can control indoor air quality. Like many in Muscatine, her family uses air purifiers year-round and humidifiers in the winter.
Bower’s five-year-old daughter, Kate, has visited the emergency room twice to treat her asthma attacks.
Linda Smith, who’s lived in Muscatine all her life, said her doctor has diagnosed her and others with an unclassifiable, upper-respiratory sickness nicknamed the “Muscatine Crud.”
“Muscatine is a hotspot for air pollution-related illnesses relative to the rest of Iowa,” said Dr. Maureen McCue, a physician from a neighboring county and founding member of the University of Iowa Global Health Studies Program.
Last year, McCue published a study, with Physicians for Social Responsibility, on the health effects of Iowa’s coal dependence that stated “substantial scientific evidence demonstrates health and environmental harms at every stage of coal’s life cycle, from the coal mine to the coal ash.”
The Iowa study also implicated industrial agriculture processes and animal feed lots as contributors to the state’s poor air.
Air monitors in Muscatine clocked 14 days with unsafe SO2 levels between Aug. 27 and Dec. 31 last year, and also registered 19 episodes which exceeded federal standards for smaller particulate matter, more than any other Iowa city for 2010.
Modeling a community
Computer air modeling is similar to weather-forecasting, and much of the software relies on information from the National Weather Service. Programmers add facility-specific inputs like fuel type and emission rates to show levels of pollution in geographic areas. The software is subjected to rigorous scientific testing in order to receive federal approval.
Air models are often used by industry to help keep emissions within allowable levels.
Mick Durham is the environmental manager at GPC, one of the top polluters in the area, along with Monsanto and MPW.
He inputs data about a fuel source’s chemical composition, smokestack heights and the flow rates from his company’s coal-burners to predict emissions. He said GPC will “develop a plume, based on the meteorology,” and then predict when and where the pollution will spread out and hit the ground.
Wind speed and direction are major factors in determining what fuel is used, and the company can switch between different types of coal to decrease the levels of sulfur released when needed.
Low-sulfur coal can have its own problems, such as higher mercury content than high-sulfur coal, so there is usually a trade-off of less sulfur for more mercury.
But using these computer modeling techniques to determine whether Muscatine meets federal pollution standards is opposed by the man who heads up the department in charge of Iowa’s air quality.
Muscatine lawyer Roger Lande, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, is also the former chairman of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), a group that has called for “streamlined” processes for air quality permits to reduce “unnecessary burden on industry.”
“I don’t think that we need to model Muscatine,” Lande said in an interview.
GPC is a client of Lande’s law firm. Lande has left the firm because of ties to industry clients.
Out of Thin Air
Exposure to sulfur dioxide and particulates can cause heart disease and have profound effects on breathing airways and lung tissue.
But pinpointing the relation between pollution and sickness can still challenge researchers.
“When people die from, for example, cardiovascular disease, you don’t know whether it happened because of a very high episode of air pollution or it happened because of chronic, consistent, high exposure to certain pollutants,” explained Dr. Naresh Kumar, a geography professor at the University of Iowa.
In a forthcoming study, Kumar will use ten years of data to make a “time-series analysis of mortality…with respect to air pollution,” by comparing bad air episodes with death rates.
For Muscatine resident Helen Van Hoover, a research study like Kumar’s would prove what she already suspects, “It would show that Muscatine has a higher incidence of afflictions…heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, COPD (chronic pulmonary obstructive disease) and all the lung diseases.”
Adopting a patient approach to the situation, she helped organize a group to work toward cleaner air in Muscatine.
They met last week to submit comments to the EPA, and their next meeting will be scheduled in Southend, a residential neighborhood that borders GPC and Muscatine Power and Water coal plants.
Van Hoover said, “It’s been a long time to get a group like this together, but I think maybe now we might be able to get somewhere.”
Because of an editor’s error, an earlier version of this story mistakenly said Lande had been confirmed by the state senate as DNR director. The senate has yet to act on the nomination.
B. Adam Burke is an independent producer in eastern Iowa and former writer for the Iowa Independent.
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