Mississippi River Cities Join New Initiative to Track and Reduce Plastic Pollution


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Nicole Welle | March 8, 2021

Cities along the Mississippi River will take part in a new project to help identify where plastic pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico is coming from.

The Mississippi River serves as a drainage system for 40% of the United States and sends huge amounts of plastic pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. To combat the problem, the new project will allow “citizen scientists” to record sources of litter they observe along the river on a mobile app. Officials will then enter the data onto a virtual map that policymakers can use to develop ordinances and plans to reduce plastic pollution, according to an Associated Press article.

Most plastic pollution enters the river through municipal storm drains and tributary streams. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic flow into oceans every year, and the debris often kills or severely injures fish and other marine life. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer with the University of Georgia, hopes the project will spark conversation between mayors, stakeholders and community members.

“Mayors can use the data to bring stakeholders together to have conversations about what kinds of interventions make sense for their towns,” Jambeck said. “And community members can use the data to bring people together to discuss the issue and discuss what kind of actions they want to take.”

The new project follows an agreement made in 2018 by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to reduce plastic pollution in the Mississippi River valley. Baton Rouge, Louisiana; St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota are leading the effort, and they are currently working on community education and outreach efforts. Webinars will be available this month to community members who wish to use the mobile Debris Tracker to help.

High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


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Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.

Chronic Exposure To Air Pollution Likely Increases Risk For Heart And Lung Disease


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Thomas Robinson | February 23rd, 2021

In a new study by the American Heart Association, chronic exposure to low levels of air pollution have been linked to increased numbers of patients admitted to hospitals for heart and respiratory illnesses.

Researchers looked at how long-term exposure to different air pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), tropospheric ozone, and nitrogen dioxide affected hospitalizations of Medicare patients across the country.  They found that low concentrations of all studied pollutants increased the risk for negative health outcomes, and was likely responsible for thousands of hospitalizations.  For example, for every additional microgram per cubic meter of air (µg/m3) of PM2.5 researchers found the rate of stroke patients increased by around 2,500 patients.

A key finding from the study was that negative health outcomes were observed even for pollution levels below U.S. standards.  Their finding suggests that current standards are not adequately protecting at risk populations like the elderly. Another important factor to consider, is that predominantly poor communities are exposed to elevated levels of pollutants at much greater rates than more affluent communities which creates a disparity in how air quality affects different populations. More than half of the U.S. population is known to be exposed to low levels of air pollution, which should be of immediate concern for policy makers and health care providers.  

Human Noise Pollution is Threatening Marine Life


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Nicole Welle | February 8, 2021

A new scientific review confirmed that human-made noise is disrupting the ocean soundscape and harming marine life.

Anthropogenic sound from sources like ships, seismic surveys, pile drivers, dynamite fishing and drilling platforms threatens the countless marine species that rely on sound to navigate and communicate. The new review, published last week in the journal Science, combined the work of 25 authors in various fields of marine acoustics to form a more complete synthesis of evidence on the effects of noise pollution. While past studies have outlined the effects noise pollution has on individual large marine animals, this study includes many groups of marine life and aims to increase global awareness of the issue, according to a New York Times article.

The study shows that increasing levels of anthropogenic noise not only negatively affect large mammals like whales and orcas, but also groups like zooplankton, jellyfish and clownfish. After clownfish are conceived in coral reefs, they drift in the open ocean as larvae until they have grown enough to swim against the tide. They then use the sounds coral reefs make to find their way back to the reef where they will live out the rest of their lives. However, high levels of human-made noise sometimes prevent baby clownfish from hearing the popping and snapping of reefs, and they never find their way back, according to the article.

The authors also found that some species of whales, killer whales and porpoises will permanently evacuate areas where noise pollution levels are too high. However, these forced evacuations can lead to population decline, especially in species that have limited biogeographical ranges like the Maui dolphin. Even when marine life can escape, they don’t have anywhere to go that is free of noise pollution.

While the study’s results are worrying, the authors say that noise pollution is the easiest pollutant to control in the ocean. Reducing ships’ speed, developing quieter propellors, avoiding sensitive areas and moving shipping lanes could all help to reduce its impact. Many animals also have the ability to quickly rebound. For example, some large marine mammals immediately began repopulating areas that had been vacant for decades when pandemic-related lockdowns reduced noise pollution by just 20% last year. The authors hope their review urges policymakers to enact policy changes that address noise pollution and raise awareness of the issue.

WOTUS Rule Changes Could Potentially Harm Iowa Farmers Says Iowa Ag Secretary


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Thomas Robinson | January 26th, 2021

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig says that if the Biden administration follows through with plans to change the rules of the Waters Of The United States (WOTUS) provision in the Clean Water Act, Iowa farmers could pay the price.

While exact details of the coming changes to WOTUS rules are unknown, it is likely the Biden administration will return components back to where they were under the Obama administration.  Secretary Naig’s reservations have been labelled by as a “political hoax” since the Clean Water Act already excuses much of the regulation on non-point sources of pollution such as agricultural fields. 

The discussion around the WOTUS rule centers on what can be defined as a “navigable” body of water.  A navigable water is defined as a water that is affected by tides, or has been used for transport in the past, present, or future.  The Trump Administrations changed the WOTUS rule in April, 2020 to improve the clarity for what waters are considered “navigable”, however, the changes failed to add any clarity and likely resulted in a lessening of water quality protections.

The issue of non-point source pollution in Iowa has made the news before when the Des Moines Water Works sued multiple drainage districts over their pollution of the Racoon River. The utility hoped that tile drainage from fields could be regulated as a point source rather than a non-point source and help alleviate the strain nitrogen pollution was placing on their operations.  The suit was dismissed after the court ruled the drainage districts could not address the injuries incurred by the utility while also ignoring whether drainage systems are point source pollutants.

Activists Call on the Biden Administration to Focus on Environmental Racism


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Nicole Welle | January 25, 2021

Environmental justice activists are celebrating President Joe Biden’s executive orders aimed at dismantling the Trump administration’s numerous rollbacks, and they hope he will continue to prioritize environmental justice throughout his term.

The National Black Environmental Justice Network and activists like Catherine Flowers applauded Biden’s decision to nominate Michael Regan to lead the EPA after being urged to do so by environmentalists. They are also encouraged by his willingness to talk about environmental justice and push for diversity in his administration. Biden nominated Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, and she will be the first Native American to hold that position. He also signed an executive order blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a move that Indigenous leaders have long advocated for, according to a Washington Post article.

A 2017 study revealed that more than one million Black Americans suffer from higher risks of cancer because they live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities. People of color are also more likely to live in regions that suffer from extreme heat, and minority communities are more likely to be centered in areas with high levels of pollution. These issues have been historically overlooked by the federal government.

Activists hope that the Biden administration will continue to focus on environmental racism as it implements future policy changes. The environmental justice movement has gained a lot of traction in recent years, and its influence has extended beyond state and federal governments. The Washington Post reported that many environmental groups are “facing a moment of racial reckoning” and have chosen to address their historical ties to racism and white supremacy. The Sierra Club, for example, issued a public letter denouncing its founder, John Muir, who was known to make racist comments against African Americans and Native Americans. Pedro Cruz, the director of healthy communities at the Sierra Club, hopes to push other big environmental organizations to better address environmental racism as well.

President Biden Signs Orders to Address the Climate Crisis on His First Day in Office


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Nicole Welle | January 21, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. followed through on his promise to begin reversing Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks on his first day in office yesterday by singing multiple executive orders and recommitting the United States to the Paris climate agreement.

In his inaugural address, Biden stressed the importance of rebuilding alliances and trust with other countries, and he hopes that rejoining the Paris agreement will help to move the country closer to that goal. Biden also used his first day to sign executive orders to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, reverse the Trump administration’s rollbacks to vehicle emissions standards, place a temporary moratorium on oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and re-establish a working group tasked with evaluating the social cost of greenhouse gases, according to a New York Times article.

Biden has placed tackling climate issues at the top of his list of priorities along with combating racial inequality, improving the country’s pandemic response and restoring the economy. Environmentalists are celebrating the president’s urgency in addressing these issues, but analysts and Biden himself have stressed that his executive orders alone will not be enough to adequately address the climate crisis. Biden set a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and congress will need to pass new environmental legislation soon to make reaching that goal possible. However, aggressive climate policies aimed at cutting the country’s emissions could face opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats in congress.

Biden’s executive orders reversing some of the Trump administration’s harmful environmental rollbacks will set the country on a positive path towards addressing the harmful effects of climate change. However, it could take years to undo the rest of Trump’s actions and replace his rollbacks with new environmental regulations. Some Republicans and powerful business groups will likely oppose the process, so any future legislation will likely require some level of bipartisan support.

Kim Reynolds Pauses Invest in Iowa Act Program for the Second Time


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Nicole Welle | January 11, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Thursday that she is once again pausing the Invest in Iowa Act, a proposal that would fund environmental and mental health programs, due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.

Reynolds originally shelved the proposal late last session after the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted the economy. She said that the program’s one-cent sales tax increase would be ill-advised during a time of economic uncertainty, and she still holds that view. Reynolds has said that she would rather follow up on tax cuts made in 2018 so Iowans can “keep more of their hard-earned money” and cited concerns about the pandemic’s effect on employment and the economy, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch previously reported that lawmakers from both parties have opposed the plan, so the Invest in Iowa Act is likely to stall without major revisions if Reynolds ever decides to act on it in the future. Some Republican lawmakers have discussed adjusting tax breaks to create funds for some of the work outlined in the act, but the Invest in Iowa act’s future is unclear.

Reynolds’ original Invest in Iowa proposal would have funded Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and improved the state’s mental health programs, and reductions in income and property taxes would have offset the one-cent sales tax increase. Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved the trust fund in 2010 and hoped that it would help to solve Iowa’s water quality issues caused by agricultural runoff and other pollution. However, it is in desperate need of funding as the sales tax increase required to fund it has never reached the debate floor.

The Invest in Iowa plan would have created $171 million a year for water quality, outdoor recreation, and conservation projects. It also would have allowed counties to shift mental health funding from local property taxes to the sales tax. However, Reynolds did not discuss alternative sources of funding for water quality or conservation projects when she announced that she would pause the program on Thursday, and she said that she is currently looking for alternative sustainable funding for mental health services.

Electronic Waste Generation is Shrinking Despite Growing Dependence on Technology


Pile of discarded smartphone and tablet screens.
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Nicole Welle | January 4, 2021

A new study revealed a 10% decline in electronic waste (e-waste) generated in the United States since 2015 despite increasing dependence on smartphones and other technology.

The study, published in The Journal of Industrial Ecology, also found that the total number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is leveling off or declining due to the versatility of modern devices. Many devices, like gaming consoles and smartphones, now have multiple uses and features, so people only need one device to meet their needs rather than two or three. For example, individuals no longer need a separate camera, camcorder and cellphone now that smartphones have quality cameras built in. The decline in e-waste can also be attributed to the phasing out of bigger, older products like computer monitors and cathode-ray televisions, according to a Yale E360 article.

The findings contradict the widely-held belief that e-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream. While a decline in waste generation is positive, it does raise concerns over the way current e-waste recycling regulations in the U.S. are structured. Currently, only half of U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws, and most set their targets based on mass, according to the Yale E360 article. Because the total mass of e-waste output is declining, meeting those targets could become more complicated.

Shahana Althaf, the lead author of the study, said that laws should shift their focus from simply keeping electronics with high lead and mercury levels out of landfills to finding ways to recover useful elements from these devices and reuse them. Elements like cobalt and indium are relatively rare and are commonly used in electronic devices, so making the effort to recover and recycle them would serve as a positive first step toward transforming e-waste into a resource and ensure a domestic supply in the U.S. It would also reduce the need for mining operations that cause devastating environmental destruction.

Controversial Aviation Greenhouse Gas Emission Rule Finalized by the EPA


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Thomas Robinson | December 29th, 2020

The EPA has finalized a new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standard for aviation that was made public in July, the first standard for the country.

The new GHG standard works to regulate U.S aviation emissions into compliance with similar standards made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The new standards have not been projected to reduce emissions, and the EPA believes that any changes made by manufacturers were likely to happen regardless of the implementation of new standards.

Unfortunately, critics argue that the new rule will fail to effectively address climate change and represents a continuation of the “do-nothing” status quo.  Toxic contaminants and particulate matter are not addressed in the new rule, both of which can result in negative health outcomes for communities close to airports.  In October, the EPA was charged by 11 states to strengthen the finalized rule which has been described as “entirely insufficient.”

Approximately 2% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by the aviation industry.  While significant advances have been made recently in alternative fuels and fuel efficiency, the U.S has observed growth in the aviation sector which will only increase GHG emissions.