Millions in damages from 2020 Derecho coming out of farmers’ pockets


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 28, 2021

The derecho and drought last year destroyed $802 million in corn, soybeans and pastures with farmers absorbing nearly one-third of the losses, according to a new report.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is lobbying congress for additional disaster aid for US growers due to insurance being unable to total cover the cost of damages. Federal crop insurance covered $560 million in losses leaving $243 million in damages farmers were responsible to pay for out of pocket. 

Across the country, damages caused by natural disasters totaled $6.5 billion last year. Federal crop insurance is only able to cover around $2.9 billion in losses with $3.6 left to farmers. Farm Bureau crop damage estimates do not include other ag losses such as loss of livestock or additional equipment costs farmers experienced. Regardless, it was the fourth-most expensive year of natural disasters since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The derecho’s powerful winds reached 140 mph on August 10 as it traveled 770 miles across eight states. While most of the damages to homes, businesses and farmers centered in Iowa and Illinois, total damage reached $11.5 billion. 

U.S. Representatives Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, and Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, voted in favor of an $8.5 billion disaster bill to provide coverage for the derecho and other high wind events which the House agriculture committee approved Tuesday according to the Des Moines Register. The bill would provide assistance to farmers and ranchers seeking natural disaster assistance for last year and 2021. 

EPA begins demolition at Des Moines Superfund Site


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 21, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began tearing down contaminated buildings at the Des Moines Superfund site, on Monday. 

The 43-acre site has been chosen for the development of a professional soccer stadium, hotel, businesses and residential areas. At the site, groundwater pollution with the cancer-causing solvent TCE had prompted the EPA to begin removing hazardous substances and update the 35-year-old groundwater treatment system in June 2021. 

The project is one in a series that were approved to receive a portion of $100 million in state aid aimed at creating jobs and infrastructure development, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority

Previously owned by Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Company, the site was used to manufacture pesticides, steel wheels, and tires. Operations resulted in the release of trichloroethene (TCE), 1,2-dichloroethene (1,2-DCE) and vinyl chloride into the groundwater before remaining vacant for over 25 years. 

In February, a court approved a settlement between Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Co. resulting in the city taking over the property. With the Superfund law used in the settlement, the EPA is able to enforce a “polluter pays” principle which holds Dico and Titan accountable for cleanup and oversight costs. $3 million of the $11.5 million in settlement funds will pay for the EPA’s demolition of the buildings and replacement of the water treatment system. 

Demolition is expected to take a month.

Vilsack announces $500 million in loans to increase competition in meatpacking industry


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 13, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced plans to provide $500 million in loans and grants to increase competition in the meat processing industry, on Friday.

In his speech, Vilsack emphasized the negative effects of four major meatpacking companies dominating over 80% of the beef market. Noting, 89.6% of farms do not generate the majority of income for the families who own and operate them. The loans and grants are aimed to help small and medium sized packing operations expand over time. 

The announcement occurred on the same day President Biden signed an executive order which requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act in an effort to allow farmers more sway in determining prices for livestock. 

Both Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced cautious optimism for the efforts to address the anticompetitive practices in the livestock markets. However the United Food and Commercial Workers International, a major union for meatpacking company employees say the aid is necessary. Adding, meatpacking workers were among the most negatively impacted by COVID-19. 

Biden Plans to Restore Endangered Species Regulations Rolled back by Trump


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 23, 2021

The Biden administration announced plans to rewrite changes made to the Endangered Species Act, on Friday.

Led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the focus will be on five regulatory changes made by the Trump administration. The revisions will significantly shift rules on habitat designations and reinstate the “blanket rule,” which requires additional protections for newly classified threatened species. 

Under Trump, habitat protections were rolled back in order to reduce limits on energy industries such as oil drilling and mining. However, the weakening of regulations, such as the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, made it harder to prosecute bird and other animal deaths caused by energy development. The bird act was among more than 100 business-friendly amendments made by Trump that Biden plans to reconsider according to The Chicago Tribune

A few of the Trump administration changes have been delayed or stopped prior to implementation. One of these changes includes the one-third reduction of protected federal old-growth forest used by the spotted owl which was announced during the final days of the Trump administration. 

The reviews announced by the Biden administration will take months or years to complete, continuing a decades-old debate between Republican and Democratic approaches to environmental regulation.

Des Moines Design Panel Approves $28 Million River Recreation Project


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 16, 2021

A Des Moines city design panel approved plans for a $28 million conversion of Des Moines’ Scott Avenue dam into a fishing and kayaking area on Tuesday. 

The Scott Avenue conversion is the largest of four major projects planned for water trails development downtown and is one of the first to use portions of a $25 million federal grant arranged by Central Iowa Water Trails and the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The project is a part of the $100 million-plus plan to improve safety by replacing or changing low-head dams while improving recreation. While the biggest project at the Center Street Dam will be voted on later, the other approved projects are at the Prospect and Birdland parks and near Harriett Street. 

Plans for the Scott Avenue project add three “drop-offs” for kayaking, a fish passage, seating in areas near the river and a secondary dam to improve safety. At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion was focused around using limestone, granit, or other natural materials, such as planting prairie and lawn grass for stabilization and decor. 

Work on the project is expected to take two years, beginning in July 2022. 

Iowa water quality program receives extra funding near end of legislative session


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Elizabeth Miglin | May 25, 2021

The Iowa state legislative session ended on Thursday with water quality bills taking center stage and receiving mixed responses. 

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig touted the 10-year extension of a state water quality program which will provide an additional $320 million in funding for water quality projects. Most of the funds will go to paying farmers for soil conservation and reducing chemical runoff projects; however, providing wildlife habitats and recreation will also be supported by these funds. 

As Naig emphasized, this funding upholds the Iowa environmental goals adopted in 2013 known as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The recommendations were expected to cost $89.3 million to $1.4 billion a year when adjusted for inflation. However, the Iowa Environmental Council noted that of the $500 million spent in Iowa on federal conservation programs in years past, only $17 million was focused directly on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

The funding of Iowa water quality programs greatly impacts other national water quality issues such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, with Iowa farms being a main source of pollution. The gulf is one of the nation’s most important shrimping areas but seasonally becomes lifeless due to algae blooms fed by fertilizer. 

Questions have arisen if the additional funding for the state water quality program will be enough due to other state environmental programs being underfunded. This includes the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund which is currently penniless due to the expectation the fund would be filled by state tax increases. However, Gov. Kim Reynold’s 1-cent sales tax increase, known as the Invest in Iowa plan, was paused due to COVID-19’s economic impact on Iowa. 

Iowa farmer leads class-action lawsuit against herbicide manufacturers


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Elizabeth Miglin | May 18, 2021

An Iowa farmer is leading a nationwide class-action lawsuit against the creators of a commonly used herbicide linked to Parkinson’s disease. 

The Iowa case was filed May 3rd in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on behalf of Doug Holliday, a farmer who works near Greenfield in Adair County. Holliday has been using Paraquat on his crops since the 1990s and alleges the manufacturers of Paraquat have failed to adequately warn users that exposure increases their risk of developing Parkinson’s. This is one of many class-action claims filed against the manufacturers of Paraquat during the past two weeks. 

This herbicide has been sold under the name Gramoxone since 1962; Paraquat which is owned by the US-based Chevron and Switzerland-based Syngenta has been sold in the US since 1964. The weed killer is banned by countries around the world, including the European Union nations and China for its connections to Parkinson’s disease and its highly poisonous nature. Both Chevron and Syngenta have defended Paraquat and have questioned the studies connecting it to Parkinson’s disease.

The federal government estimates in 2017 alone, over 15 million pounds of Paraquat was applied to American croplands according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. This estimate is expected to increase as Paraquat is increasingly used as an alternative herbicide to Roundup, a herbicide under increased scrutiny as a possible carcinogen. 

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.

Vilsack focuses on nutrition, broadband access, and racial discrimination in USDA budget request


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Elizabeth Miglin | April 15, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced the USDA’s goals with president Biden’s budget proposal to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. The USDA plans to expand food insecurity and nutrition programs alongside efforts to address racial discrimination and increase rural broadband access. 

Last week, Biden revealed his 2022 budget request to Congress which included $27.8 billion for USDA, a $3.8 billion increase from last year. The budget would provide nearly $7 billion for nutritional programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Additionally, the USDA plans to relaunch the “Strike Force” program which provided $23.8 billion for 380 countries with persistent poverty established under the Obama Administration, according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.

A notable change however, is the USDA will end the Farmers to Families Food Boxes program established by the Trump administration by May. The USDA plans to continue efforts to distribute produce and dairy products to food banks and other beneficiaries, however noting, the Farmers to Families program has shown “significant administrative costs and inadequate accounting of where boxes were delivered.” 

This budget request comes in conjunction with the American Jobs Plan and the American Rescue Plan. The former has a proposed budget of $2 trillion which will help supplement the costs of providing rural communities access to broadband, increase the manufacturing of biobased products and community level environmental protection efforts led by USDA. The American Rescue Plan has provided a 15% increase or $3.5 billion to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $100 per household of four.

Vilsack is the first Cabinet secretary to appear this year before a House appropriations panel. 

Biden Adds Climate Spending to $2 Trillion Infrastructure Package


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Nicole Welle | April 5, 2021

President Joe Biden’s new $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs package includes a multi-billion dollar plan to combat the climate crisis and promote a nature-based infrastructure.

The plan includes $16 billion for capping abandoned oil and gas wells and $10 billion for the Civilian Climate Corps, a program that would create employment opportunities through conservation and restoration projects. To help pay for this, the proposal would raise the corporate tax rate to 28% and close tax breaks for oil and gas development, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

There are currently over 2.3 million abandoned gas and oil wells in the United States, and they are leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. By putting money towards capping them, the federal government plans to create jobs for workers displaced by the transition to renewable energy. This plan to create climate-friendly jobs shares similarities with the New Deal that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put into place in the 1930s to improve infrastructure and the economy.

While the plan has received a lot of support from climate scientists and activists, many conservative lawmakers have opposed the tax increase. House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves said in a statement that it would kill jobs and hinder economic recovery after the pandemic. However, the plan’s supporters assure that the tax hike would not negatively impact working Americans.

“This $2.3 trillion is spread over eight years, and there’s a plan to try to pay for it,” Jerry Schnoor, co-director for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, said on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River. “It has to do with taxing the income of the richest people, making more than $400,000 per year.”