Biofuel Waivers For Oil Refineries Could Be Removed After EPA Files Motion


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Thomas Robinson | May 4th, 2021

The EPA has filed a motion to remove biofuel waivers granted to the Sinclair Oil Corp. over questions on whether the waivers were allowed under previous court rulings.

Sinclair Oil Corp. received three biofuel waivers for the years 2018 and 2019 shortly before the Trump administration left office which exempted their oil production from federal biofuel requirements. These waivers have been a contentious issue after a 10th circuit court ruling in 2020 that argued some of the recently granted waivers had been inappropriately issued by the EPA. That ruling declared that these biofuel waivers could only be applied as continuous extensions to waivers granted in 2010, not as stand alone waivers, which would greatly limit the number of oil refineries that would qualify.

Two oil refining companies challenged the court’s ruling, however, a U.S. federal court threw out the challenge just last month. Both companies had previously received waivers that would not have been issued under the new court order, and had petitioned for a rehearing over the decision. While biofuel blending is good for farmers, the requirement that billions of gallons of ethanol must be included in gasoline costs is very expensive for the oil industry.

Iowa benefits greatly from biofuel requirements, since the state is the number one producer of ethanol in the country, with a yearly total of approximately 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol, or around 27% of U.S. ethanol production.  Federal blending standards were introduced under the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard which spurred agricultural growth in Iowa and a surge in the price of corn that brought high profits for farmers.

ISU Poll Suggests Few Farmers Agree With Scientists That Climate Change is Mostly Caused By Humans


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Thomas Robinson | April 27th, 2021

In a 2020 poll conducted at Iowa State University (ISU), only a small percentage of respondents agreed with a statement saying that climate change is caused mostly by human actions.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll surveys what issues farmers in Iowa and the Midwest find important.  Of all respondents, only 18% agreed with the statement that “climate change is occurring, and it is caused mostly by human activities.” In comparison, 40% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Climate change is occurring, and it is caused more or less equally by natural changes in the environment and human activities” which is an increase from 36% in 2013.  While there appears to be a difference between farmer’s opinions and the scientific consensus that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, the increase in those who think that humans are potentially influencing the climate is promising for changes to public perception.

Participants also agreed more that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and that they are concerned about the ways climate change may influence their farms.  Particularly after severe storm events, like last August’s derecho, and after prolonged periods of drought that have affected much of Iowa, an increased concern about severe storms or the effects of climate change on farms is unsurprising.

Climate change is expected to have a negative effect on agriculture because of reduced rainfall totals, and the increased frequency of weather extremes (colder cold weather, and warmer warm weather). Farms and farmers will be able to adapt to climate change, but there is more that can be done, whether by planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion, or by planting crops that will help fix carbon in our soils.

Water Quality Identified As Top Environmental Concern In Recent Gallup Survey


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Thomas Robinson | April 20th, 2021

In a recent Gallup survey, Americans were asked about which environmental issues made them the most worried, and the two top responses were drinking water quality, and the condition of lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

The majority of respondents were greatly concerned about drinking water (56%), and the pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (53%).  A minority of respondents were greatly concerned about larger environmental issues like climate change (43%) or air pollution (41%).  Water pollution is a problem that could personally affect a respondent in the survey which is attributed as the reason for such high concern over more widespread environmental challenges.  Concerns are likely to be elevated as high profile events such as lead exposure in the drinking water of Flint, MI linger in the minds of the public. 

Overall, opinions on the environment haven’t changed much over the past several years as respondents evaluation of environmental quality has remained about the same over the past 20 years that the survey has been run.  Unfortunately, around 52% of respondents think the environment is getting worse while only 42% of respondents thought environmental quality is improving which suggests that the public’s opinion of environmental quality is declining overall.

Water quality issues are prevalent in Iowa, for example, Iowa’s Racoon River that runs through Des Moines was recently identified by American Rivers as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers.  Poor water quality on both the Des Moines and the Racoon Rivers has required Des Moines’ water utility to install additional treatment to produce safe drinking water.

Small Increases in Ambient Carbon Monoxide Levels Result in Daily Mortality Increases


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Thomas Robinson | April 13th, 2021

In a recent study, researchers demonstrated that small increases in carbon monoxide can increase number of mortalities the next day.

Scientists have observed a positive connection between daily mortality and ambient carbon monoxide (CO) exposure from 337 cities in 18 countries.  The level of exposure they measured was of a low concentration below current air quality regulations which suggests that current measures may not go far enough in preventing negative public health outcomes from ambient CO.  A major finding in the study was that there seems to be no threshold between CO exposure and mortality, which suggests there is no safe level of exposure to ambient CO.

Carbon monoxide is released into the air from the incomplete combustion of carbon based fuel sources used to run cars or generators for example.  The air pollutant takes the place of oxygen molecules which prevents essential organs from receiving the amount of oxygen they need to function.  At high concentrations carbon monoxide can be fatal, but at lower concentrations it can cause fatigue and chest pains in those with heart problems.

These findings suggest that the global community should revisit current air quality regulations with a focus for how low level exposure to ambient pollutants influences public health.

Controversial Manure Management Plan Approved By Iowa DNR


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Thomas Robinson | April 6th, 2021

Supreme Beef, a cattle operation stationed in northeastern Iowa, has had their proposed Manure Management Plan (MMP) approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The approval comes after a long series of hearings for the MMP that has faced scrutiny for the risk the plan poses to some of Iowa’s cleanest waters.  In particular, critics emphasized how unlikely it was that the cattle operation would evenly spread manure in the proposed 30 mile radius and that over application on farms closer to the feedlots could potentially pollute surface and groundwaters in the area. 

Northeastern Iowa is particularly susceptible to groundwater pollution from runoff and infiltration because of the porous karst topography found in the area.  Environmentalists who opposed the plan focused on Bloody Run Creek, a popular spot for fishing tourism because of the brown trout that can be found there, as an example of a pristine water that could be harmed by the IDNR’s decision. If the Creek was harmed Iowan’s could lose out on fishing tourism and the loss of one of the few “high quality” waters present in the state.

The Iowa Environmental Council has spoken out against the IDNR’s decision to approve the plan in a statement that took aim at the preferential treatment agriculture receives over environmental concerns.  

Warmer Winters Likely To Expand Range For Tropical Species


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Thomas Robinson | March 30th, 2021

A recent review has highlighted that warming winters are likely to result in an expanded range for some tropical plants and animals across the United States.

Scientists have found that multiple tropical plant and animal species, such as mangrove trees and manatees, are already expanding northward resulting in what is called tropicalization.  The largest factor for northward expansion of tropical species is whether they will suffer from freezing conditions or not, and as winter’s have warmed the line where those conditions occur has moved northward.  Extreme cold events, like what happened recently in Texas, function to push back the advancement of tropical species, but these events are happening even less often than they already do which allows species that have expanded northward to become more tolerant of the cold.

Unfortunately, warmer conditions are also expected to allow invasive species such as certain tree beetles to move further north, as well as a few mosquito species.  The mosquitoes pose a threat to public health because they are known to carry diseases such as Zika and yellow fever.  Additionally, researchers are concerned about how the expansion of new species into northern habitats threatens the biodiversity of the invaded ecosystems. Insect populations have been declining across the globe, particularly in the U.S. Midwest, and it is likely that the addition of new and adaptable species will compromise existing insect populations.

Microplastics And Biofilms Can Promote The Antibiotic Resistance Of Pathogens


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A recent study conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology demonstrated that biofilms formed on microplastic surfaces can serve as reservoirs for pathogens and promote antibiotic resistance.

Researchers found microplastic particles in wastewater treatment facilities boosted the antibiotic resistance of measured pathogens by around 30 times. Plastic surfaces are relatively hydrophobic which can result in the formation of biofilms that allow pathogens to interact with antibiotics in the wastewater.  When pathogens in the biofilms are able develop antibiotic resistance they can create a new challenge by sharing their resistance with other pathogens using antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).  Increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics has been labeled a significant global threat which is now likely to be influenced by the prevalence of microplastics our wastewater. 

Microplastics are either manufactured for products like toothpaste or handsoaps, and can also be found as debris from other plastic products.  These plastic pollutants have been detected across the globe in many different environments and they present a unique public health challenge.  Additionally, toxic chemicals are known to be attracted to plastic debris in the oceans which can then be released into organisms when they ingest plastics. 

We currently don’t fully understand how low level chronic exposure to microplastics and the contaminants they may release has on the human body, but there is evidence that these particles can act as endocrine disruptors and cause significant harm. 

Proposed Changes To Tax Exemption For Forested Land Halts In Subcommittee


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Thomas Robinson | March 16th, 2021

After a Senate Ways and Means subcommittee hearing held yesterday, Senate File 352 was not advanced in the Senate which leaves the current tax exemption for Iowa’s forested land intact.

In the recently proposed bill, the current 100% property tax exemption for forested land would be reduced to 75%.  Opponents of the bill have suggested that these tax changes would harm forest reserves across the state as landowners may change how their forested land is used to offset increased property taxes.

Much of the push for the bill comes around the discussion of bad actors that abuse the tax exemption and improperly maintain their land.  The current requirements to qualify for the tax exemption are for landowners to participate in Iowa’s forest reserve program, and to maintain either 200 trees per acre, or 70 fruit trees per orchard.  While there may be some bad actors, state senator Joe Bolkcom emphasized that most private landowners in the program do a good job of maintaining Iowa’s forests.

After the derecho event last August, approximately a quarter of all trees in Iowa were lost to the storm, while in Cedar Rapids that number increases up to around 65%. Programs such as “ReLeaf” in Cedar Rapids are working to replace lost trees, however, these projects take a long time. For example, it is projected to require up to 15 years to replace Cedar Rapid’s lost trees.  Iowa’s forests provide significant recreational value for residents, and out of state visitors, which could be compromised if forested land was negatively affected. After losing so much of Iowa’s forests last summer, now is not the time to put forth a bill that could risk further deforestation in our state.

Drought Conditions Likely To Continue Into Crop Season


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Thomas Robinson | March 9th, 2021

Experts are concerned that the drought conditions currently affecting Iowa are likely to continue into the coming crop season.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor approximately 11% of Iowa is experiencing drought conditions and most of the affected counties are in northwestern Iowa where dry conditions have persisted for most of the year.  There is hope that spring snowmelt could address some of the moisture deficit, particularly if the snow melts slowly which would allow the soil to absorb the water.  Experts believe that reliable spring rainfall could help make up for dry conditions, however, Iowa is predicted to have less spring precipitation than normal because of persistent La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

Northwestern Iowa has recently experienced tough conditions as two years of dry soils have followed the heavy flooding in the area back in 2019.  Drought conditions can induce stress in crops which may lead to damage and reduced yields for both soybeans and corn.  After a year of uncertain crop markets, another year of drought is likely bring added difficulty for Iowan farmers.

High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


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Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.