‘Waste’ Activist Fights Sanitation Crisis Affecting the Rural Poor in the U.S.


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Nicole Welle | November 26, 2020

Activist and author Catherine Coleman Flowers’ work spurred a study in 2017 that revealed environmental and sanitation problems in rural America.

The 2017 study discovered that more than one in three people in Lowndes County, a rural county in Alabama, had tested positive for hookworm. This parasite was previously thought to have been eradicated in the United States because it usually only infects people in areas without access to proper waste management and sanitation, but this study revealed that it is not an issue confined to “developing” countries. The large number of infections in rural America revealed significant gaps in access to basic sanitation and led activists to look further into the cause of the issue, according to an Iowa Public Radio article.

When looking at rural areas in Alabama, Flowers found that many families lacked access to an on-site septic system and were sometimes facing fines and jail time when they could not afford to have one installed. Lowndes County has dense clay soils and a high water table, so families living there need access to a special, more expensive septic system that can cost around $28,000. Most families, both poor and middle-class, do not have the resources to have one installed and are forced to deal with improper sanitation and legal action.

The current septic system technology was designed before climate change caused sea levels and water tables to rapidly rise and changed rainfall patterns. Flowers says that the next steps toward solving the sanitation problem in Lowndes County and elsewhere will require people to acknowledge climate change and work towards developing new, more affordable technologies that will account for rising sea levels.

Johnson Clean Energy District 2020 Virtual Clean Energy Tour


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Thomas Robinson | November 24th, 2020

The Johnson Clean Energy District (JCED) held a virtual tour of solar energy installations across Johnson County this past Friday.

The event was held to celebrate and discuss clean energy transitions occurring within the county.  The tour included the Prairie Hill Cohousing site, the Johnson County solar power installation by the county building, and an installation at Herbet Farms.  Attendees included state legislators and community members who are involved in the district.

Clean energy districts are local groups that strive to speed up transitions to clean energy. These organizations have been styled after the soil and water conservation districts that emerged in the 1930s following the Dust Bowl.  The first district formed in Iowa was the Winneshiek Energy District and the idea has spread to surrounding states like Illinois and Wisconsin.  The JCED works for homeowners and businesses alike, through education on available energy incentives, as well as their STEP program that installs energy efficiency measures directly in homes.

In a recent brief, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has confirmed that solar energy is the cheapest electricity in history.  Their report emphasizes the importance of a clean energy transition, and the potential cost reductions it could bring for consumers around the world and right here in Iowa.

New Research Estimates Lead Exposure In Iowa’s Drinking Water


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Thomas Robinson | November 17th, 2020

Researchers at the University of Iowa have reported that between 51,000 and 79,000 Iowans may be exposed to unsafe lead levels in their drinking water

In a recent paper, Iowa researchers have used data collected for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to estimate how many Iowans might be at risk for lead exposure from their drinking water.  Their findings demonstrate that current in home water testing measures fail to adequately capture lead exceedances, and that water systems serving smaller populations were more likely to exceed accepted limit. From their estimates, around 65,000 Iowans are likely at risk for lead exposure above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, particularly for young children.  Low levels of lead exposure can have a large influence on children’s development resulting in behavioral and learning problems as well as slowed growth. Surprisingly, most lead in drinking water comes from pipes in individual homes meaning that enforcement of lead limits for water utilities likely misses lead exposure at the point of consumption.

While Iowa is not facing a lead crisis like those in Flint, MI or Washington D.C., the testing for lead in drinking water opens the door for consumers to be unknowingly exposed in their homes.  The findings of Iowa researchers suggests that changes are needed in how we ensure public protection from legacy toxins in our drinking water.

Environmentalists Hope Biden’s Win will Improve Iowa’s Renewable Energy Industries


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Nicole Welle | November 12, 2020

Iowa environmental advocates are celebrating President-elect Joe Biden’s win and say that his presidency could boost Iowa’s renewable energy industry and environmental protection efforts.

The Iowa Environmental Council is interested in seeing the Biden administration increase federal opportunities that expand solar and wind development, promote the construction of transmission lines to deliver clean energy from Iowa to the rest of the U.S., and push policies that promote sustainable farming practices. Iowa has been heavily impacted by storms and flooding events in recent years, so the council also hopes to see policies that will encourage the adoption of a more resilient infrastructure, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Angelisa Belden, a council spokesperson, says that she expects the Biden administration to reverse the Donald Trump’s environmental deregulation efforts from the last four years. The council is also focussing closely on who Biden will appoint as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They disapprove of Andrew Wheeler, the current head of the EPA, because of his close ties to the coal and oil industries.

The Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club also endorsed Biden during the presidential race. They, along with other environmentalists across the state, believe Biden’s bold plans to address climate change will aid them in their own efforts to transition the state to clean energy and protect natural resources, and they look forward to his first days in office.

How Trump’s and Biden’s Plans for the Environment Compare


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Nicole Welle | October 19, 2020

With election day drawing nearer, it is important to know where the two presidential candidates stand on environmental policy issues.

Joe Biden has spoken repeatedly about his comprehensive plan to combat climate change, but president Trump has not clearly outlined his plans for the environment if he is reelected. In order to see where exactly Trump stands, one must look at his past actions and brief comments on the issue.

Joe Biden proposed a $2 trillion clean energy plan. This plan sets a number of research and development goals, the primary one being reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. He believes these goals will ultimately increase job opportunities and reduce the negative effects of climate change on communities according to an Iowa Public Radio article. Here are some of the main goals Biden has pledged to address:

  • Allocate 40% of clean energy plan investments toward low-income and minority communities more heavily affected by pollution and climate change.
  • Seek to rejoin the Paris climate accords.
  • Increase climate-focussed investments in the auto and transportation industries to cut emissions and create jobs.
  • Implement energy upgrades in 4 million buildings, weatherize two million homes in the U.S. and build 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units.
  • Create a division within the Justice Department that regulates and penalizes companies for environmental effects on communities.

President Trump has denied the validity of climate science in the past and has made a number of statements about his stance on climate change that often contradict each other. Here are some of Trump’s past actions and statements that could reflect his plans if reelected:

  • The president’s website lists partnering “with other nations to clean up our planet’s oceans” as one of his innovation goals for the future. He has also supported legislation to remove garbage from the oceans.
  • He put $38 billion toward “clean water infrastructure.”
  • He allocated additional funding for national parks and public lands.
  • He pulled the U.S. out of the international Paris climate deal and has tried to push policies that back the coal industry.
  • He has supported boosting production of oil and natural gas in the U.S.
  • Trump has called man-made climate change a “hoax,” and reversed multiple climate policies put in place during the Obama administration.

Some Republican lawmakers have begun to separate themselves from the outright denial of climate change, and they are pushing for a “clean energy mix” that involves multiple energy sources. This makes it unclear what Trump’s reelection could mean for energy policy in the next congress, according to an article in Market Watch.

Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


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Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

Heat Waves Should Be Named And Ranked Says Newly Formed Heat Resilience Group


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Thomas Robinson | August 18th, 2020

The Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a recently formed group of experts, is suggesting that heat waves should be named, similarly to how hurricanes are named, and ranked by severity as the first step towards increasing heat wave visibility.

Heat waves were the deadliest weather-related disaster in the US between 1986 and 2019 and were responsible for 4,257 deaths. The next deadliest weather-related disaster in the US was floods responsible for 2,907 deaths over the same time period.  The greatest challenge in making heat waves visible is that they don’t produce the same amount of physical damage that flooding or other severe weather like tornadoes do.  However, by naming and ranking the severity of heat waves the Alliance hopes that communities will be able to better prepare for extreme heat events.

Unfortunately, heat waves are expected to increase in frequency and will be affecting more than 3.5 billion people globally by 2050.  It is also expected that the urban poor and the disadvantaged will weather the worst of the effects caused by heat waves because of community vulnerability.

The Alliance’s formation is timely as just yesterday Death Valley, CA saw the hottest temperature on Earth since at least 1913 according to NPR.  As heat waves become more frequent and more intense, a failure to prepare communities for extreme heat events like the European heat wave of 2003 will result in the loss of human lives.

Cedar Rapids and Surrounding Communities Still in Shambles a Week after Derecho Hits Iowa


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Nicole Welle | August 17, 2020

Cedar Rapids residents are still facing extensive property damage and power outages after last week’s derecho tore through Iowa.

A storm system with hurricane-force winds left a path of destruction through Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities on August 10th. A week later, thousands are still without power and the community is dealing with damage to structures, power lines, vehicles and trees. A Cedar Rapids city arborist estimates that Cedar Rapids lost half of its tree canopy in the storm and, while Alliant Energy vowed to restore power to all customers by Tuesday, it could still be a few days before power is returned to 100% of the population.

The storm also had a large agricultural toll. Up to 43 percent of Iowa’s corn and soybean crop were damaged as high winds flattened millions of acres of crops. With agricultural and property damage combined, the derecho could be responsible for a multi-billion-dollar economic cost said Steve Bowen, a meteorologist and head of catastrophe insight for the reinsurer Anon.

Gov. Kim Reynolds mobilized the Iowa National Guard Thursday to assist the recovery effort and committed to applying for a federal disaster declaration this week. President Trump and Vice President Pence are ready to approve, and this would provide financial assistance to homeowners and cover repairs for infrastructure, according to the Washington Post.

Local non-profits and volunteers from surrounding communities continue to help provide food and aid for those affected by the storm and assist in the cleanup process.

Around 1 in 3 Children Globally Have Blood Lead Levels Above CDC Action Levels


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Thomas Robinson | August 4th, 2020

Around 800 million children globally have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per decilitre according to a new report from UNICEF. 

UNICEF reports that children around the world are exposed to lead on a previously unknown scale. Most of the affected children live in parts of Africa and Asia but there are also affected populations living in Central and South America, as well as parts of Europe.  Children are exposed to lead through the inhalation or ingestion of lead particles from contaminated drinking water or materials such as lead paint.  One particularly concerning route of exposure is from poorly recycled lead-acid batteries.  These batteries are becoming increasingly common as countries begin to develop and introduce vehicles.

Lead is known to have cumulative and adverse health effects on children’s development.  Lead impairs brain functions and can also cause damage to the nervous system and the heart.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe an actionable level of 5 micrograms per decilitre to identify children with blood levels higher than most.  Unfortunately, no amount of lead is safe as even low blood lead levels have been linked to long term cognitive impairment.    

The United States is not immune from lead contamination in drinking water as can be seen through high profile events such as Flint, MI or Washington, DC.  Recent work in Iowa is looking to determine the extent of lead in local school’s drinking water which can be used to inform schools if they need to replace failing infrastructure.

Dakota Access Pipeline Is Ordered To Shutdown Pending Environmental Impact Statement


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Thomas Robinson | July 7th, 2020

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been ordered to shutdown for additional environmental review after a Washington D.C. court ruling on Monday.

After more than three years post completion, a judge has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline be emptied within 30 days to allow for further environmental review.  The judge argued that the U.S. Corps of Engineers had failed to satisfy the provisions required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before granting an easement required for the pipeline’s construction. 

NEPA is a broad environmental law that requires environmental consideration in project planning as well as community input for federal projects.  The Trump administration has been attempting to enact changes to NEPA which would narrow the scope of the law to better assist business interests. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline crosses diagonally across Iowa and was recently approved to double the amount of oil that flows through the pipeline in Iowa.  Oil pipelines in Iowa have had issues previously, such as the spill that occurred in Worth County back in 2017. That spill is just one of 28 spills that occurred between 2000 and 2017 on pipelines owned by Magellan Midstream Partners in Iowa.