The dangers of coal ash


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Coal ash is a byproduct that can have very harmful effects on the world around it | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 22nd, 2018

Coal ash–a byproduct of burning coal–is a form of pollution often not talked about, but its effects cut deep, especially for families living in ash-contaminated areas.

One such family is paying the price for a deal signed over fifty years ago. The Peelers, who run a ranch in the heart of rural Texas, agreed to sell part of their land to San Miguel Electric Cooperative, a company that proposed a coal mine in the area–an attempt to bring proper electricity to the state’s non-urban population.

Now, years later, heaps of coal ash that have been dumped near their ranch contaminate the Peeler’s land and water, leaving many of their fields barren.

Coal ash has been found to contain many harmful elements, including so-called “heavy metals” like arsenic and mercury. These elements damage wildlife, the natural environment, and humans, leeching into soil and groundwater if not properly taken care of. A new bill in Illinois is urging forward a bill that would require coal plants to better seal off their ash deposits.

The bill may not come to pass. But the threat that coal ash poses to the environment is well-documented–and currently being lived out–by one Southern family fighting for their ranch.

 

On The Radio- Decreasing fish populations


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(flickr/nanarab)

Kasey Dresser| May 20, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how fish populations are decreasing as ocean temperatures continue to increase. 

Transcript: 

Overfishing is not the only factor decreasing fish populations.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A study published in the journal, Science, tracked the changes of 235 fish and shellfish populations from 1930 to 2010. Throughout that time, the Earth’s ocean temperatures have increased on average by half a degree Celcius.

Eight percent of the fish and shellfish in the study showed depleting populations. Four percent of the populations increased however, since fish like black sea bass thrive in warm water. As water temperatures continue to increase, those gains will not be sustained.

Christopher Free, a quantitative ecologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, referred to this trend as the fish and shellfish reaching their heat thresholds. Currently,124 species of fish and shellfish are on route to becoming an unstable food source.

3.2 billion people worldwide rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. These findings are meant to inform local fisheries of the changing populations so they can begin to take these findings into account.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

 

Reducing pollution–at land and at sea


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The shipping industry causes more pollution than you might think | Photo by Sascha Hormel on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 15th, 2019

An environmental group recently met to discuss methods of reducing pollution and emissions from an often under-the-radar source: The shipping industry.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an environmental group paving the way for cleaner and greener ocean vessels. Despite the increased use of planes for transport, roughly 90% of global trade is still done by boat.

Currently, pollution from ships accounts for about 3% of global emissions in total, but could balloon to 17% by 2050.

Ship fuel isn’t regulated the same way that most onshore fuels are. Most ships use what’s often referred to as “dirty fuel”, and it produces large amounts of sulfur and carbon into the air. Sulpher is known for contributing to acid rain; the black carbon is often carried by the wind towards the Arctic, where it stains the snow, increasing the amount of heat that snow absorbs and adding another layer to the greenhouse effect.

The group discusses ways of reducing these various emissions during their meeting, avenues of saving the climate that included restricting ships to use fuel with less than 0.5% sulfur content and investing in alternative fuel. While a 3% contribution to global emissions may not seem like much, any reduction in our planet’s pollution is welcome.

New report reveals prevalence of well contamination in Iowa


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Click here to explore new findings on well contamination from the Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council. 

Julia Poska| April 25, 2019

If you own a private well in Iowa, it’s likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria, nitrates or both, according to a new report from the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Working Group.

“Wherever Iowans test for these contaminants, they have a pretty good chance of finding them,” the report’s primary author, economic analyst Anne Schechinger said in a press release.

The report was released yesterday as an interactive map, using dots in three colors to indicate the relative levels of contamination between counties based on state testing from 2002 to 2017. Because the EPA does not require testing for private wells, the vast majority of Iowa’s private wells are never tested. Only 55,000 of Iowa’s estimated 290,000 wells were tested during the study period.

Over 40 percent of those wells contained fecal coliform bacteria, considered unsafe in any amount. Twelve percent had nitrate levels above the EPA’s 10 parts per million safety standard. Twenty-two percent had nitrate levels above 5 ppm, which recent studies have linked to increased risk of numerous health problems, according to the report. The average nitrate level rose to 5.7 ppm over the years of study.

Over that entire period, eight counties tested fewer than 10 wells, meaning this report tells an incomplete story. Findings indicate that those counties, which appear the cleanest on the map, may actually be among the most at risk.  Only one-third of wells were tested more than once. Those that were tested repeatedly often showed continued contamination, indicating lack of action.

 

Beware “greenwashing” this Earth Day


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Watch out! Consumerism can be made to appear “green” (flickr). 

Julia Poska| April 22, 2019

“Earth Day deals to save money and help the planet,” one headline reads. “10 products that will help you buy less this Earth Day,” says another. Other articles advertise “clean” beauty products or “green” technology.

Don’t fall for it; buying anything, especially anything you don’t need, ultimately contributes to fossil fuel emissions, resource consumption and the planet’s pervasive trash problem.

“Greenwashing” occurs when an institution puts more resources and effort into marketing itself as eco-friendly than it does actually minimizing its environmental impact. This doesn’t only happen on Earth Day, of course. Many companies, public figures and organizations  feature “sustainability missions” on their websites year long,  making vague claims about their “zero-waste journey” or “environmental stewardship,” with little concrete information about the implementation or outcomes of such initiatives.

Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter for Mother Jones, wrote today that she “hates” Earth Day, mostly because it has devolved from a day of protest and activism to a day when anyone can claim to care. Every April, her inbox floods with PR pitches promoting  Earth Day news from companies that she knows are less-than-sustainable 364 days of the year.

“Earth Day provides a fine opportunity to showcase how [a company’s] generally negligible corporate gestures demonstrate their commitment to ‘going green,'” she said.

Reducing consumption by fully utilizing what we already own or sharing with others is far better for the planet than consuming new products, even if those products are well-intended.  So think critically about the messages you come across. Use up all your shampoo before you invest in that more natural version, buy a used shirt instead of a brand new “organic” tee and forego using a straw at all over buying a metal one.

And if you want to absolutely minimize your carbon footprint today, Quartz writer Ephrat Livni makes the case for “sitting perfectly still” at home with the lights and air conditioning turned off, so that “ever-so-briefly you are not contributing to climate change.”

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

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Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

 

Nitrate breakdown: understanding our water pollution


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The Midwest generates significant amounts of our nation’s nitrate pollution | Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com 

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 16th, 2018

As residents of the Midwest, we often talk about nitrate levels in our streams and waterways. But these discussions of nitrate pollution can be hard to picture and process without accurate data and descriptive imagery, two things that will help us break down and understand the magnitude of our nitrate pollution problem.

Nitrate is a groundwater contaminant, and it’s regulated in our drinking water. High levels can cause a host of health issues, especially in infants. The presence of nitrate in the body alters our hemoglobin–the compound in our blood that transports oxygen to our cells for cellular respiration. When altered, our hemoglobin cannot effectively carry oxygen. In adults and older adolescents, the immune system is typically able to fix this issue; infants have less developed defense mechanisms.

In the Midwest, a huge portion of nitrate pollution comes from the runoff generated by different crop fertilizers, making us one of the largest contributors to general nitrate pollution.

Data from 2018 shows us that nitrate load generated in Iowa in 2018 alone reached 626 million pounds, enough to fill about 4,800 railroad tanker cars. This isn’t even the largest yearly scope of nitrate pollution. In 2016, we generated over a billion pounds of nitrate.

These levels are measured and cataloged by IIHR (the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic research–Hydroscience & Engineering). Many universities and research facilities are dedicated to bringing down our nitrate levels through different methods–for now, however, monitoring and understanding how much nitrate we truly produce will help us clean up our waterways.