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.

Researchers Develop a New Process for Detecting and Removing Harmful Wastewater Pollutants


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Nicole Welle | June 29, 2020

A group of researchers at Swansea University came up with a new, more efficient way to detect and remove pollutants found in wastewater that come from pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

The research, published in Analytical Science Advances, outlines a one-step process for quantifying and separating a range of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly found in medicine and personal care products that often end up in wastewater sludge. This new method could increase our understanding of which pollutants may be released from these products and help reduce their effects on the environment, according to a Science Daily article.

Contaminated wastewater makes its way into rivers and streams or is recycled as fertilizer to be used on fields. Chemicals from certain pharmaceuticals have been found to negatively impact human health and some animal species that come into contact with them. For example, multiple species of vulture in Asia have become critically endangered after being regularly exposed to components of Diclofenac, a common non-steroidal inflammatory drug. Fish populations around the world are also decreasing after being exposed to female contreceptives that cause the feminization of male fish.

The new method will allow the detection and extraction of harmful compounds using one process where multiple where needed before. Researchers hope that this process will allow for future advances in the wastewater treatment process that will ensure these harmful pollutants are degraded or removed before they come into contact with humans and wildlife.

Former UI Student Marcelo Mena Joins a Virtual TED Conference to Discuss the Pandemic and Climate Change in Chile


Joseph Bolkcom and Nicole Welle | June 24, 2020

Marcelo Mena, a University of Iowa graduate and Chilean environmental science leader, appeared in a TED talk May 29 to give his perspective on the relationships between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in Chile.

Mena received his MS in 2003 and a PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa in 2007. During his time at UI, he helped organize the beginning of sustainability work on campus and hosted a music program on public radio each Sunday night.

“Marcelo was an amazing student and a great example of speaking up and leading by example,” said CGRER co-director and Mena’s PhD advisor, Greg Carmichael.

After graduating, he returned home to Chile as a faculty member and was recruited to join the Chilean government as the Minster of the Environment.  He then went on the work at the World Bank where he was an advisor to the CEO and Practice Manager, Climate Research Analytics, Climate Change Group.

He is currently serving as chair of the new environmental engineering department at Universidad Andres Bello Santiago, one of Chile’s most prestigious institutions and is considering running for president of Chile.

EPA releases FY 2019 Superfund Annual Accomplishments Report


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Thomas Robinson | June 16th, 2020

The EPA has released their annual accomplishment report for fiscal year 2019 and Iowa has two sites mentioned in the report. 

The Superfund Annual Accomplishment Report summarizes the work the EPA has done to clean up contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL).  The report also details the efforts being taken to improve the Superfund program based on recommendations made by the Superfund Task Force.  In FY 2019, the EPA fully deleted 12 sites and partially deleted 15 sites across the country.  There were 6 less deleted sites and 11 more partially deleted sites in 2019 over 2018.

Iowa saw two Superfund sites deleted from the NPL in 2019, one completely deleted, and the other only partially deleted.  The Electro Coating Inc. site in Cedar Rapids was deleted, making it the first Superfund site in Iowa to be closed since 2005, while the Shaw Avenue Dump site in Charles City was partially closed.  A partial closure means that some portions of the site still require clean up, while other portions are no longer a hazard to human health.

Superfund is the informal name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) passed in 1980.  CERCLA allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites across the country and to engage those responsible for the contamination.  Since CERCLA was passed, 424 sites have been removed from the list out of 1335 sites total.   

Perchlorate Contamination Is More Dangerous Than Previously Thought


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Thomas Robinson | June 9th, 2020

In a new study, researchers have suggested that perchlorate, a chemical commonly found in fireworks, is more dangerous to human health than was previously thought.

Perchlorate is a highly mobile chemical that can be found in many contaminated sites across the country.  In their study, the researchers discovered that perchlorate poses a greater threat to human health than previously thought because it can reduce the amount of iodide that accumulates in thyroid cells.  Low iodide concentrations can interfere with hormone production which can negatively influence human metabolism and development.

Perchlorate has both synthetic and natural routes into the environment, but a common source for the chemical is from fireworks displays.  A different study demonstrated that after fireworks displays, perchlorate levels in adjacent bodies of water spiked up to 1028 times above the mean baseline concentration.

Iowa has experienced perchlorate contamination in Hills, IA, where the chemical has been detected in the communities well water since 2001.  Thankfully, perchlorate levels have decreased after the installation of expensive reverse osmosis water units.  Unfortunately, considering the risk perchlorate likely poses to human health, the EPA has yet to decide on a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perchlorate in drinking water.

Three Conservation Groups Intend to Sue the EPA for Failing to Enforce Pollution Rules in Poor Communities


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Nicole Welle | June 4, 2020

The Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release on May 28 announcing a lawsuit against the EPA for delaying the reduction of sulfur dioxide air pollution in a number of communities.

Areas of Missouri, Louisiana, Indiana, Puerto Rico and Guam were included in the lawsuit issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Environmental Health and the Sierra Club. The cities and counties listed in the lawsuit are being exposed to dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant produced by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA by law to set air quality standards, determine when and where air pollution exceeds the national limit, and ensure that plans are in place to clean up that pollution by a set deadline. In the current affected areas, the EPA has missed these deadlines by anywhere from two months to over four years.

The EPA has already determined that exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide air pollution can lead to health problems in humans and trigger ecological harm. The people in the areas listed are currently at a higher risk of heart and lung disease, asthma and contracting COVID-19 due to constant exposure to the pollution. Sulfur dioxide pollution also contributes to acid rain and damages lakes, rivers and entire ecosystems.

Young children and the elderly are more vulnerable and at a higher risk, and the problem is made worse by the fact that the areas in the lawsuit include large minority and indigenous populations that are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and air pollution.

Iowa School Districts Receive $300,000 from the EPA to Replace Older School Busses and Reduce Diesel Emissions


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Nicole Welle | April 30th, 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded $300,000 to 10 Iowa School districts April 23 to help replace old diesel buses with new, more efficient models that will decrease diesel emissions.

These funds were part of a $11.5 million plan to replace 580 buses in 48 states and Puerto Rico. The EPA hopes the new buses will reduce the emission of harmful pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, both being commonly associated with aggravated asthma, lung damage and other health issues.

The EPA’s Diesel Emission Reduction Act provides funding for the plan. Applicants receive rebates between $15,000 and $20,000 per bus when replacing engine models older than 2006. The amount awarded depends on the size of the bus. Buses made before 2006 were not required to meet certain emission standards, and the EPA hopes to phase out the use of those older buses still in operation. Newer models that meet EPA standards are up to 90% cleaner, according to the EPA’s news release.

The funds were distributed in conjunction with the 50th annual Earth Day celebration.

“Earth Day’s primary goal is to protect the environment for future generations. These rebates help to do just that by continuing to improve air quality across the country and providing children with a safe and healthy way to get to school,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement on the EPA’s website.

The DERA program has funded more than 1,000 clean diesel projects and reduced emissions in over 70,000 engines since 2008.

Terrestrial Insect Populations Have Decreased Over The Past Couple of Decades


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Thomas Robinson | April 28th, 2020

Terrestrial insect populations are declining, according to a study released this month. 

Researchers analyzed over 150 insect surveys to clarify concerns about declining insect populations and found that terrestrial insect populations decreased by 9% per decade, while freshwater insect populations increased by 11% per decade.  The researchers placed emphasis on the fact that data were scarce from land areas with high urban and agricultural use, which suggests that the actual rate is higher than a 9% decline per decade.

Insect population decline has been the topic of recent research which warns of a catastrophic decrease in insect populations across the globe.  Since the 1970’s, it is estimated that the abundance of insects has declined by around 50%.  Insects are an essential component of our globe’s ecosystems and the decline in populations signals an unseen risk to the environment.

In Iowa, one trend that is likely to contribute to the decline in insect populations is the extensive use of pesticides such as neonicitinoids, which are a key suspect for the decline in many insect species such as bees.  Iowa has seen an increase in the amount of neonicitinoids applied since 2004 as they have been proven to be an effective insecticide if applied as a seed coating.  With the continuing trend of increased pesticide use in Iowa it is unlikely insect populations will halt their decrease in our state anytime soon.

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Compliance Reporting During COVID-19 Pandemic


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Nicole Welle | April 16th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an order on March 26 announcing the suspension of the enforcement of environmental compliance reporting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this change, businesses were required to report and limit all air emissions and water discharges, meet requirement for hazardous waste management and maintain standards for safe drinking water. Businesses that failed to meet these EPA-issued standards could face fines.

The recent order states that factories, power plants, and other facilities are encouraged to keep records of any instances of non-compliance with EPA instituted regulations. However, they will not face any fines for violations as long as the EPA agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than intentional disregard for the law, is the cause.

In its order, the EPA did not designate an end date for the suspension or address the potential ramifications this decision could have for public health and safety. Allowing industry to police itself could cause air and water pollution to go unchecked and put the safety of drinking water at risk, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

Compromising access to clean water could make it more difficult for the U.S. healthcare system to provide the sanitary conditions necessary for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic according to the IEC. The Washington Post also reported that the wording of the EPA’s order is broad enough that companies could get away with practices that put public health at risk well into the future.

COVID-19 Mortality Risk Increases with Increased Exposure to Poor Air Quality


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Thomas Robinson | April 14th, 2020

A recent Harvard study has presented a link between air pollution and a heightened mortality risk from COVID-19. Models developed by the researchers predict a 15% increase in COVID-19 death rates if the concentration of fine particulate matter increased by a small amount (1 microgram per meter cubed).

Particulate matter in the air comes from sources of dust or sooty emissions, such as agricultural fields or factories.  There are two common sizes of particle pollution, PM10 (large) and PM2.5 (fine), where the number indicates the average diameter of the particles in micrometers.  For reference, an average human hair is approximately 70 micrometers in diameter, meaning that a PM2.5 particle is about 30 times smaller than a human hair.

It is well known that air pollution has harmful effects on human health, and that air pollution measures such as the Clean Air Act have a positive influence on human health outcomes.  What is becoming more apparent as COVID-19 continues to affect the globe is that improvements in air quality can result in measurable improvements for human health moving forward.  For example, the study suggests that if the long-term average PM2.5 in Manhattan had been reduced by 1 µg/m3 there might have been 248 fewer deaths associated with COVID-19 as of April 4th in New York County.