Iowa officials examine options for disposal of unused hog carcasses

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Tyler Chalfant | May 11th, 2020

With many meatpacking plants in Iowa and nearby states closing or reducing operations in the face of COVID-19 outbreaks and concerns over worker safety, state officials developed plans earlier this month to dispose of hog carcasses

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ rules, carcasses can be buried by farmers on their land with restrictions, composted, sent to a rendering plant, or burned in an engineered incinerator. Some landfills won’t accept, or will limit how many they take. Although the Iowa Pork Producers Association has not yet seen reports of farmers culling their herds, according to John Foster, a leader in the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations and administrator of the Black Hawk County Solid Waste Commission in Waterloo, there could be as many as 10,000 hogs destroyed daily in the nation’s leading hog-producing state. 

The COVID-19 pandemic in Iowa has highlighted the public health risks of large-scale agricultural facilities, but even under more “normal” circumstances, these facilities produce massive amounts of waste. Iowa’s 25 million hogs produce an amount of waste equivalent to 65 million humans, while 95% of America’s hogs are raised on farms which sell 5,000 or more hogs in a year. Their waste can flow into nearby waterways and floodplains, which become overwhelmed with such large populations, posing a risk to human health and the environment.

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Betsy Stone talks particulate matter, COVID-19

Tyler Chalfant | May 4th, 2020

After reviving the EnvIowa podcast this year, we had to take a hiatus as COVID-19 prevented us from safely meeting in person. We’ve resumed the podcast now in video form, starting with an interview with Dr. Betsy Stone about her research and how she’s adapting to the pandemic.

Supreme Court ruling applies Clean Water Act to groundwater pollution

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Tyler Chalfant | April 27th, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that excluded pollutants that travel through groundwater before reaching protected surface waters. Environmental groups have called the County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund decision “a huge victory for clean water.”

In a 6-3 ruling, the majority of the court rejected what Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the “extreme” positions of both sides. Under the Clean Water Act, facilities are required to obtain permits for point-source pollution, which originates from a single identifiable source, into navigable waters. The appellate court had ruled in favor of environmental groups arguing that this applied to pollution that “actually and foreseeably reach navigable surface waters,” a standard that Breyer said was too broad.

The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, had sided with a wastewater plant on Maui, Hawaii, arguing that the law applied only to direct pollution into navigable waters. Earlier this year, the federal agency removed protections for smaller waterways, replacing an Obama-era rule. This decision limits the pollution allowed by that change as well, requiring permits for pollution into some smaller bodies of water if it functionally pollutes a larger, protected body as well. 

Water quality advocates warn that these permits are easy to obtain, but the decision means that facilities can face lawsuits over, and have limits placed on, their groundwater discharges.

Record high sea temperatures cause concern over extreme weather

Map from NOAA

Tyler Chalfant | April 20th, 2020

As parts of the world’s oceans hit record high temperatures last month, researchers are concerned that 2020 could see a series of extreme weather events. The high temperatures in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean, combined with intense weather systems that have prevented much of the cold water in the Arctic from spilling south, create an environment that could intensify tropical storms.

These warm sea temperatures also have spilled over onto land, Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring section at the National Centers for Environmental Information in North Carolina told Bloomberg. Water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico last month were 76.3 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.7 degrees above the long term average. As a result, Florida recorded its warmest ever March, and Miami reached 93 degrees on Wednesday, 10 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Michelle L’Heureux, a forecaster at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center, said that the entire tropical ocean is above average. Global sea temperatures were 1.49 degrees Fahrenheit above average in March, the second highest level ever recorded, behind only March 2016, when temperatures were 1.55 degrees above average.

Methane levels reach all-time high

New instruments to study air pollution, cyclones – Climate Change ...
Image from NASA

Tyler Chalfant | April 13th, 2020

Global methane levels hit an all-time high last year, according to a preliminary estimate from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reaching nearly 1875 parts per billion. According to climate scientists, 2019 also saw one of the fastest growth rates, and the second-largest single-year leap, in the past two decades. 

Methane is 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t remain in the atmosphere for nearly as long. It can come from natural sources like wetlands, as well as human-produced sources, including livestock and oil and gas wells. According to one estimate, oil and gas firms could cut methane emissions by as much as 45% at no net cost. 

Methane levels were relatively flat, until a rise in oil and gas drilling in 2006 caused an uptick. Scientists had predicted more recently that methane levels would level off and eventually drop, and the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement were written under that assumption. According to experts, methane emissions need to be curbed in order to limit short-term warming, and their rise threatens countries’ ability to meet the Paris goals. 

New Iowa law offers “certainty” to private solar installations

Tyler Chalfant | April 7th, 2020

In March, the Iowa legislature unanimously passed a bill to protect private investments in solar energy. The bill, dubbed the “Solar Act,” results from months of negotiations between environmental groups, agriculture, and utility company MidAmerican Energy. 

Proponents of the new law say that it will expand solar energy in the state, while addressing MidAmerican’s concerns about costs, the latter of which led to a controversial proposal made by the utility company last year. That initial proposal included a $300 fee for consumers who wanted to take advantage of net metering.

Net metering credits consumers who have installed solar panels for the electricity they are adding to the grid. The Solar Act writes this system into state law, and is also supported by MidAmerican as well as by environmental and agricultural groups.

Representatives of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, which joined environmental groups in opposing MidAmerican’s initial proposal, say that the law offers certainty to farmers who want to install solar panels or wind turbines on their property.

EPA rolls back fuel efficiency standards, the U.S. government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis

Photo by Eric Demarcq, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | April 1st, 2020

On Tuesday, the Trump administration weakened Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. Over the past three years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back numerous efforts to combat climate change, but the rules compelling companies to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles were considered to be the federal government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis yet.

The change lowers the rate at which auto companies are required to improve efficiency each year from 4.7% to 1.5%. This falls well below the 2.4% increase per year that the industry has said it would make even without regulations. 

Changing these standards will allow vehicles to emit about one billion tons more carbon-dioxide, equal to about a fifth of U.S. annual emissions. Critics warn that Americans will also be exposed to more dangerous air pollution as a result, and will be forced to spend more on gasoline. Communities near oil-processing facilities and highways, which often consist of poorer Americans and people of color, will face the worst effects.

The EPA argues that the change will make automobiles cheaper, allowing more Americans to buy newer, safer cars. Although the EPA has previously found that the benefits outweigh the costs of the Obama-era rules, they now argue the opposite by citing a more recent study that researchers say is fundamentally flawed

Researchers find ways to preserve farmland with prairie

Tyler Chalfant | March 26th, 2020

Researchers are finding ways that prairie grasses could help make farming more sustainable. At Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie Biological Station, located near Manhattan, Kansas, scientists are studying the natural prairie habitat that once covered most of Iowa and its neighboring Midwestern states. 

Iowa Public Radio recently interviewed researchers at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project. Jesse Nippert, a professor at Kansas State and the lead scientist for the Konza Prairie LTER Project, explained that controlled burns can help ecosystems survive the effects of climate change. “Without fire, the grasses would lose their dominance,” he said. Other types of plants, such as shrubbery and eventually trees will eventually take root. 

Precipitation events are predicted to grow both larger and more infrequent in this region as a result of climate change, meaning that both drought and flooding will become more common. This is a perfect setup for soil erosion, and which prairie grasses can help prevent. 

Scientists are studying what these drought conditions could look like by recreating the extreme conditions of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After much of the region’s soil, torn up by unsustainable farming practices, blew away, the natural ecosystem recovered within 20 years. “The species that live here in the Great Plains, these native species, are tremendously resilient,” Nippert said. 

Planting prairie strips near cropland is one way to limit soil runoff. Another option may be perennial crops, which don’t need to be planted every year. Researchers have developed perennial strands of wheat and rice. If widely implemented, perennial crops would decrease damage to the soil, as well as the amount of carbon released into the air.

Virginia sets targets for 100% clean energy

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Photo from Piqsels

Tyler Chalfant | March 24th, 2020

Earlier this month, Virginia became the first southern state to set a target for 100 percent clean energy. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires the state’s two largest investor-owned utility companies to produce exclusively carbon-free electricity by 2050. 

Utility companies will also be required to reduce overall energy demand in the next five years, increasing energy efficiency and cutting back on costs for consumers. In a further effort to protect low-income consumers, the law creates the Percent of Income Payment Program, capping the amount consumers pay for electricity based on income.

Through the state’s new renewable portfolio standard, the utility companies must also increase their energy storage capacity, build offshore wind turbines, and inform their customers on how to save money through solar power. The cap on net metering will be raised from one to six percent.

The bill also instructs state agencies to develop a carbon cap-and-trade program, and for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program that most northeastern states have joined. Advocates for the new law say that Virginians will reap $69.7 billion in net benefits, and see up to 13,000 new jobs per year in the state.

COVID-19 outbreak impacts U.S. biofuel industry

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Tyler Chalfant | March 20th, 2020

As the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak has cut down on Americans’ travel, many transportation industries, including producers of biofuels, are hurting. Earlier this week, the airline industry asked for over $50 billion in assistance from the federal government. 

As fuel demand has fallen, many U.S. ethanol plants have lowered fuel production or idled entirely. Renewable Fuels Association Chief Executive Geoff Cooper called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant small refineries waivers from the nation’s biofuel mandates. 

The industry employs about 350,000 workers at roughly 200 plants across the country, which produce just over 1 million barrels of ethanol per day. 44 of those plants are in Iowa, which leads the nation in ethanol production, creating nearly 30% of the nation’s ethanol. Margins on ethanol refining in the Corn Belt fell to as low as -11 cents on the gallon earlier in March, and had risen to 10 cents on the gallon as of Thursday, March 19th.

Some ethanol producers have tried to shift focus. Hand sanitizer, which has recently seen a surge in demand, can be made using ethanol.