High PFAS levels found in Quad Cities drinking water

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Tyler Chalfant | January 23rd, 2020

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the drinking water of several U.S. cities. The Quad Cities had one of the highest levels of the toxic fluorinated chemicals found in the study, behind only Brunswick County, North Carolina. These two locations were the only two where PFAS levels exceeded the 70 parts per trillion advised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS have been found to interfere with natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system, and increase the risk of some cancers. Because the substances were once used in the production of consumer products, most people have some levels of PFAS in their blood, though those levels have decreased since they were phased out of production. PFAS are still used in a variety of industrial processes and in firefighting foams used at airstrips. Last year, high levels of PFAS were found near Air National Guard bases in Des Moines and Sioux City.

Of the 44 locations tested, only three had levels of PFAS that were undetectable or below what the EWG considers hazardous for human health. The EWG places a stricter limit on PFAS levels than the EPA does, considering anything above one part per trillion to be harmful. At 34 of the locations sampled, PFAS were found that had previously not been detected by EPA testing.

Federal conservation program rewards farmers for prairie strips

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Tyler Chalfant | January 21st, 2020

A new law allows farmers to collect federal conservation payments for installing prairie strips. Researchers from Iowa State University who have studied the environmental benefits of prairie strips for the past decade advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture and influenced this decision. 

Prairie strips are small, but strategically placed, pieces of prairie planted within corn and soybean fields. The researchers found that converting just 10 percent of cropped land to prairie reduces soil loss by 95 percent, phosphorus loss in surface runoff by 70 percent, and provides a habitat for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), passed in 1985, pays farmers annually who remove sensitive land from production and plant species that improve environmental health and quality. The 2018 Farm Bill renewed the CRP and for the first time included prairie strips as a conservation practice that farmers can claim benefits from, beginning in fiscal year 2019.

Trump administration rolls back NEPA climate change protections

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt with President Donald Trump, photo from U.S. Department of the Interior

Tyler Chalfant | January 16th, 2020

Last week, the Trump administration proposed major exemptions from a 50-year-old environmental law. 

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed land management and infrastructure actions before making a decision. Under the new guidance, this assessment would only need to involve immediate, local impacts, rather than taking a broader view of the environment to consider effects like greenhouse gas emissions. 

Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt added to President Trump that the application of the NEPA has “gone off the rails.” The president framed this decision as clearing up unnecessary bureaucracy in order to speed up important infrastructure projects. 

It also follows a pattern of this administration rolling back environmental protections. President Trump has weakened or removed nearly 100 environmental regulations since taking office. He has also been challenged by 70 separate lawsuits on these rollbacks, the vast majority of which have been successful

Many of the president’s environmental decisions have been aimed at helping fossil fuel industries. While his decision of the NEPA was framed in terms of highways and bridges, the policy has had the greatest impact on stalling oil and gas pipeline construction and coal leasing, which his administration has tried to push.

Minnesota legislators propose plan to promote clean electrical sources

Minnesota Capitol Building
Photo from MN Administration, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | January 14th, 2020

Minnesota state legislators announced that they will introduce a bipartisan plan requiring electric utilities to prioritize clean energy sources. Republican leaders, including some who opposed a similar bill last year, have gotten behind the “Clean Energy First” bill as part of an effort to transition 70% of the state’s electricity sources away from fossil fuels over the next two decades.

The bill would require electric companies to use clean energy sources when building or replacing power plants. Exceptions are allowed for when clean energy can be proven to be unaffordable, or when a renewable energy source alone or in cooperation with other clean energy sources can’t meet the expected need. The bill classifies nuclear, solar, wind, hydropower, carbon sequestration, and municipal solid waste as clean energy sources.

House Democrats and Governor Tim Walz have pushed for an even more ambitious plan, to move the state’s electric sector to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Senator David Osmek, the Republican chair of the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee, has called that plan a “non-starter,” but has gotten behind the “Clean Energy First” plan. 

The Committee will hold hearings on the plan in Rochester on Jan. 15, and Minnetrista on Jan. 22.

Iowa schools exploring meat alternatives

Photo from Pixabay

Tyler Chalfant | January 9th, 2020

Schools in Benton County, Iowa experimented with plant-based meat alternatives on Wednesday. The meat production industry produces the majority of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists have said that cutting back on meat consumption is the single biggest way an individual can reduce their environmental impact.

A 2018 study found that 83% of all farmland is used for livestock, while animal products make up only 18% of total calories. Beef is one of the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, releasing 105 kg for every 100 g of protein. In contrast, tofu produces less than 3.5 kg for the same amount of protein. 

The plant-based initiative is a part of Vinton-Shellsburg High School’s Farm to School program, along with the Green Iowa Americorps effort to promote sustainable schools. Green Iowa Energy Efficiency Coordinator noted that opposing meat was not likely to be a popular stance in Iowa. However, limiting the meat in one’s diet can make a difference. 

The program is focused on promoting student health, as Iowa ranks 13th out of all the states in childhood obesity. Nutritionists have repeatedly found plant-based diets to be the healthiest options, while red and processed meats have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

A hotter, drier summer has worsened fire season in Australia

Image by ABC News, from flickr

Tyler Chalfant | January 7th, 2019

Though the new year has begun with relatively mild temperatures in Iowa, on the other side of the world, Australia is experiencing an unusually warm summer, leading to deadly fires in the southern part of the continent. The fires escalated over the weekend, as parts of the country hit record high-temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. 

2019 saw Australia’s driest spring on record. The dry season contributed to warmer days and cooler nights, as cloud cover and soil moisture, both of which serve as moderating factors. The dry, warm and windy conditions have led to bigger fires spreading in multiple directions. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the dry conditions are due in part to an air circulation pattern known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, or IOD. When the IOD is in its positive phase, it leads to cooler waters and lower precipitation in Australia. The IOD has been in this positive position for two years in a row, making conditions even drier. This back-to-back positive is unusual, but likely to occur more often going forward as a result of climate change. 

So far, the blazes have burned 12 million acres, an area larger than Switzerland, and claimed 24 lives. Thousands have been evacuated, and the Australian military has been deployed to help in the firefighting efforts. 

The environmental harm in holiday fireworks

Photo by Hans, from Pixabay

Tyler Chalfant | January 2nd, 2020

Around the world, 2020 began with countless tiny metallic particles exploding into the air and polluting the atmosphere and water sources. Fireworks are beautiful and exciting, but have been found to have a negative impact on human health, especially when released in large quantities. 

Perchlorate, a chlorine and oxygen compound used in fireworks, has been linked to thyroid problems. The substance has been found seeping into groundwater at unusually high concentrations following fireworks displays, so many states have passed regulations or guidelines in an attempt to limit its presence in drinking water. This problem, as well as the air pollution caused by metallic coloring agents, has led to the development of greener alternatives, including fireworks that are chlorine-free. 

In countries like Iceland and Germany, where personal displays on New Year’s are popular traditions, officials have warned people to use fireworks in moderation, and placed restrictions on their use. This year, India outright banned polluting fireworks for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. In past years, fireworks have worsened the already hazardous air quality in many parts of the country, and have been linked to a 30% to 40% increase in reported breathing problems.