Iowa representatives criticize EPA’s biofuel waivers


Tyler Chalfant | August 21st, 2019

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted waivers from federal biofuel law to 31 small oil refineries. Members of Congress from Iowa on both sides of the aisle have criticized this move for hurting the state’s renewable fuel industry. 

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard, refineries are normally required to blend biofuels like ethanol into their gasoline, or to purchase credits from those that do so. However, exemptions are available for small refineries that can prove that compliance with the rule would cause significant financial strife.

From 2013 to 2015, the EPA granted no more than eight waivers per year, but since Trump took office, the number of waivers has quadrupled. This latest round brings the total to 85 since 2016, and includes refineries owned by ExxonMobil and Chevron.

13 ethanol plants have recently shut down, three of them permanently, in part due to the loss in demand caused by these waivers. The country’s largest ethanol producer POET blamed the EPA as it was forced to close an Indiana plant on Tuesday.

Senator Chuck Grassley accused the government of not keeping its word and “screwing the farmer when we already have low prices for grain.” Iowa is the leading producer of corn and ethanol production in the U.S., and the industry supports nearly 43,000 jobs in the state.

UI researchers recommend improvements to private well testing program


Tyler Chalfant | August 20th, 2019

The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) released a report Monday outlining ways in which Iowa’s program to protect drinking water from private wells can be improved. According to the report, the state’s Grants to Counties program has been severely underutilized, with between 29-55% of the funds awarded to participating counties remaining unspent.

The program was created in 1987 as a part of the Groundwater Protection Act to provide funding for testing private wells for contamination, as well as reconstruction of private wells and plugging of abandoned wells. The US Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate private wells or recommend standards for individual wells, though it recommends testing wells annually for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. Nearly 300,000 Iowans rely on private wells as their primary source of drinking water.

CHEEC’s report, published in partnership with the UI Public Policy Center, recommends improving the Grants to Counties program by expanding the contaminants tested for, to include substances such as pesticides, manganese, lead, and copper. It also suggests prioritizing the most vulnerable wells and the counties with the greatest need, which have the greatest number of private wells and least access to Rural Water, and are already those that are most likely to better utilize the funding. Funding could also be used to assist with remedial actions, increase marketing for the program, and close gaps in the inventory to more accurately estimate the number of private wells in the state. 

On The Radio- Drinking water and your health


 

pexels-photo-416528.jpeg
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Kasey Dresser| August 19, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how nitrate pollution in drinking water can affect pubic health. 

Transcript:

The Environmental Working Group released a study that links nitrate consumption through water to an increased risk for cancer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

In Iowa, nitrate pollution in drinking water remains an everyday threat. The current federal limit for nitrates in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, but according to the study, adverse health risks can be caused by a nitrate amount just one-tenth under that federal limit. The Environmental Working Group recommends a nitrate limit of 0.14 milligrams per liter in order for there to be no health risks.

The risks for bladder and ovarian cancers are increased for postmenopausal women. According to the study, nitrate pollution potentially caused over 12,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. – or 300 cases annually – totaling $1.5 billion a year in medical costs.   

The high volume of nitrates in water can be attributed to Iowa’s farm runoff that contains fertilizer and manure. In 2018, IIHR research engineer Chris Jones released a study that said the Des Moines River, Cedar River, and Iowa River combined produced a nitrate equivalent of 56 million people.   

There are currently no state or federal regulations for farmers in terms of controlling agricultural run off. Some political leaders and farm groups support the voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy of 2013, which aims to eliminate 45 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

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

Climate change threatens food production


Tyler Chalfant | August 14th, 2019

A report released Thursday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that climate change will make crops scarcer and less nutritious. Even as the global population rises, the number of people without enough to eat has been shrinking in recent decades, but rising temperatures, increased flooding, and more extreme weather patterns could reverse that progress.

Staple crops like wheat have been found to offer less protein, iron, and other important nutrients when grown at high carbon dioxide levels. A study earlier this year found that the world is already losing 35 trillion calories from crops each year. That amounts to about 1% of all food calories, or enough to feed 50 million people. 

The effects of climate change vary by region, however, with the greatest loss of food production happening in Europe, Southern Africa, South Asia, and Australia. While Illinois has seen an 8% production in corn yield, Iowa has actually seen gains in production due to climate change, according to Deepak Ray, a senior scientist with the University of Minnesota. 


A part of the problem is that food production contributes to the very process that is harming it. Depending on the accounting method, the industry contributes somewhere between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. That footprint can be reduced by farming in ways that are better for the land, including limiting the use of fertilizers and planting crops that add carbon to the soil, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

Governor Reynolds declares Iowa Wind Week on Fairgrounds


Photo via Theodore Scott; Flickr

Tyler Chalfant | August 13th, 2019

Governor Kim Reynolds proclaimed the week of August 11 – 17 to be Wind Week in Iowa, in recognition of the growing role wind energy plays in the state’s economy. The ceremony was held on the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Monday, and the governor commemorated the event by signing a 150-foot-long wind turbine blade.

This is the third year the American Wind Energy Association has hosted a nationwide American Wind Week, after wind power became the country’s largest source of renewable energy capacity. Last year, 14 other governors across the country joined Governor Reynolds in signing proclamations of the event. 

With over 5,000 turbines, Iowa ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in wind capacity, at 8.3 gigawatts. Wind turbines are expected to account for 40% of the energy produced in the state by next year. With ten different factories across the state, 9000 Iowans are already employed in the production of wind turbines.  


According to Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham, the amount of renewable energy produced in Iowa is also a major draw for consumers and businesses in the state. “It’s one of the many reasons sustainability-minded businesses like Facebook and Apple and Google have chosen Iowa,” said Durham.

Iowa City declares a climate crisis


Photo from Wikimedia Commons, American007

Tyler Chalfant | August 7th, 2019

The Iowa City Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday night declaring a climate crisis. The resolution set new targets for the city’s carbon emissions and directed the City Manager’s office to provide a report within 100 days, recommending ways to meet those targets.

The Council approved a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan last September, setting carbon emissions targets that matched the Paris Agreement. Then in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To meet that goal, human-caused emissions would need to fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. 

Activists around the world have been pushing for cities and local governments to declare a climate emergency as a first step towards mobilizing to combat global warming. The movement has grown momentum in the past few months, with hundreds of cities, as well as a few regional and national governments, declaring climate emergencies. In July, members of the U.S. Congress introduced a national Climate Emergency declaration, which several representatives, senators, and presidential candidates have endorsed. Iowa City is the first city in Iowa to pass such a resolution.

Iowa City students regularly walked out of class this spring to demand local action on climate change. Mayor Jim Throgmorton claims that their advocacy, in addition to the IPCC report, contributed to this move by city leaders.

PFAS contamination poses risk to drinking water


River in Des Moines, Iowa
Photo by Philip Hall, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | August 6th, 2019

The U.S. military found high levels of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contaminating water at Air National Guard bases in Des Moines and Sioux City earlier this year. 

The Des Moines Water Works, along with representatives from the local, state, and federal governments, formed a working group to better understand this contamination and the effects it may have on drinking water.

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a health advisory for PFAS contamination in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion. At some sites, the levels were nearly 200 times that number. So far no PFAS have been found in the drinking water near these cities, though more testing is being conducted to determine if the contamination has spread to area wells. 

PFAS were once found in several consumer products, from carpets to clothing to paper packaging, but they were phased out of production between 2000 and 2006. However, they are still used in a variety of industrial processes, as well as in firefighting foams used at airfields, including these Iowa bases.

Studies have shown these chemicals can adversely affect immunity, cholesterol, liver tissue, certain hormones, and the development of fetuses and infants, as well as increase the risk of some cancers. 

Though a few communities have been exposed to PFAS through contaminated water, most people are exposed to them through consumer products and food. Because of this, virtually everyone contains some level of PFAS in their blood, but scientists have found these levels to be decreasing over time.