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.
The previously instated greenhouse gas emission standards required that passenger vehicles get 54 miles per gallon by 2025. Automobiles have surpassed energy plants and become the U.S.’s leading source of greenhouse gases.
“Rather than pointing to the fact that these standards are cost-effective for consumers, that we have the technology to meet and exceed these standards by 2025, and that these standards have tremendous positive impacts on the economy, the ideologues currently at the EPA have decided to ignore this evidence and misconstrue how the standards work.”
Climate change skeptics are among those listed as possible candidates for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.
The board’s objective is “to provide independent advice and peer review on the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues to the EPA’s Administrator.” At present, 47 members sit on the board, but service terms will end for 15 members in September. The EPA has published a list of 132 possible candidates to fill these positions, about a dozen of whom have openly rejected widely accepted climate science. One candidate published a report in 2013 outlining the “monetary benefits of rising atmospheric CO2.”
Anyone can nominate anyone else as a candidate for the Science Advisory Board, and the list of nominees has not yet been thinned down by the agency. Staff members at the EPA are responsible fo eliminating a number of the nominees, while ensuring that the remaining candidates have expertise in a wide range of areas (i.e. hydrology, geology, statistics, biology, etc.). However, the final selection of new advisory board members is up to Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to anonymous EPA official.
Air pollution levels previously deemed “safe” may be deadly, a new study shows.
Harvard University researchers found that long-term exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter leads to premature death, even at levels below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The study examined data for over 60 million Medicare patients from 2000 to 2012, and found that 12,000 lives could be saved annually by reducing levels of fine particulate matter by 1 microgram per cubic meter below EPA standards.
“It’s very strong, compelling evidence that currently, the safety standards are not safe enough,” lead researcher Francesca Dominici said to NPR.
The study also found that African Americans, men, and poor people are at greater risk for death due to exposure to fine particulate matter, though did not examine why. Exposure can also cause heart attacks, asthma, and decreased lung function.
In an editorial response to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, four doctors (Rebecca E. Berger, M.D., Ramya Ramaswami, M.B., Caren Solomon, M.D., and Jeffrey Drazen, M.D.) urged the Trump administration to tighten regulations of air pollutant levels. Trump has signed an executive order dismantling guidelines to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, and opted to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
“Although these actions were primarily intended to undo efforts made by the Obama administration to address climate change, the potentially dire consequences also include increasing people’s exposure to particulate matter,” the editorial said.
The more than 1,700 citizen are seeking $722 million dollars in damages. The plaintiffs argue that the EPA “failed to follow several specific agency mandates and directives” and neglected to determine whether local and state officials were immediately taking steps to address the issue.
The 30-page lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Michigan on Monday. It reads, “This case involves a major failure on all levels of government to protect the health and safety of the public…Local, state and federal agencies and employees, working individually and at times in concert with each other, mismanaged this environmental catastrophe.”
According to the EPA’s own website, lead contamination of drinking water can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia among children. Lead from drinking water can also pass through the placenta resulting in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.
The city of Flint, population of 100,000, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, causing lead to leach from the city’s old pipes. A year later, children from Flint were found to have high levels of lead in their blood samples. Researchers from Virginia Tech University concluded that 40 percent of the homes in the predominantly African American city had drinking water that exceeded federal safety limits in September of 2015.
On January 24, 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that the city’s drinking water tested below the federal limit. Ninety percent of the samples taken contained lead levels of 12 parts per billion or less, well below the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. Still, public health officials recommend that residents continue to use filtered water for cooking and drinking as the city continues to replace its pipes.
This class-action lawsuit follows Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s felony charges against four government officials involved in the public health crisis. In all, 13 current and former government officials have been held accountable for the contamination of Flint’s water.
The Trump administration also ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove its climate change webpage on Tuesday, according to reports from two anonymous EPA employees. The sources say the page could go down as early as Wednesday. The agency has also been banned from making press releases, writing blog posts and communicating via social media while the Trump administration make its transition into power.
In a recent interview with NPR, Doug Ericksen, the head of communication for the Trump administration’s EPA transition team, said that throughout the transition period, scientists will be subject to an internal vetting process before they can make their conclusions public.
Ericksen said, “We’ll take a look at what’s happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that’s going to reflect the new administration.”
He did not say whether the review process would become a permanent hurdle for EPA scientists. Ericksen said, “We’re on day two here…You’ve got to give us a few days to get our feet underneath us.”
Any internal vetting at the EPA directly contradicts its scientific integrity policy. The policy, established in 2012, “Prohibits all EPA employees, including scientists, managers, and other Agency leadership, from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions.”
It is not unusual for new administrations to curb public outreach while its agencies adjust to the transition of power but government vetting of scientific work is uncommon.
Andrew Light, a senior fellow in the Global Climate Program at the nonpartisan World Resources Institute, said, “It’s certainly the case that every administration tries to control information, but I think that what we’re seeing here is much more sweeping than has ever been done before.” Light added, “And in particular, it’s noteworthy that it seems to be aimed at a cluster of science-driven agencies that primarily work on the environment and climate change.”
IowaWatch’s 2016 investigative work titled, “Crisis In Our Wells” is a multiple-part special report which explores Iowa’s rural well water contamination problem.
According to the report, an estimated 288,000 people rely on private wells for their water supplies. However, rural well water quality is not regulated, so many well owners may not know what is in the water they’re drinking. IowaWatch spent much of 2016 testing for nitrogen, bacteria, arsenic and lead in southwest Iowa private wells, and found that a large number had high nitrate and bacteria levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard for nitrate contamination is 45 milligrams per liter. IowaWatch, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization, tested 28 wells in May and June. Eleven of the tested wells had nitrate levels above 45 milligrams per liter, with one rural home’s water coming in at 168 milligrams per liter. Some wells contained trace amounts of arsenic and lead, while fifteen wells had unsafe bacteria levels.
County sanitarians that perform tests for these contaminants told IowaWatch that they often have trouble convincing homeowners that testing well water is important. Sherry Storjohann is an environmental health specialist that has been testing wells in Crawford and Carroll counties for a quarter century.
Storjohann said, “What’s out of sight is out of mind.” She explained, “I have so many people with hand-dug wells that say they’ve got the best tasting water, the clearest water, the coldest water. Yet, what they realize after they test is just how unsafe that water is.”
Recent research from the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination found that nitrates in drinking water can lead to birth defects among pregnant women, certain types of cancer and thyroid problems. Bacteria in drinking water is not necessarily harmful to residents but can be a sign that the well is open to outside contaminants such as agricultural runoff, vermin or septic system leaks. The health risks associated with low levels of lead and arsenic are unknown, but the EPA sets those contamination limits at zero.
In 1987, Iowa legislature established the Grants to Counties Program as a part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The program provides funds to county health departments to provide well-related services to residents. All of Iowa’s counties, except for Marshall county, participate in the program. Funds for the program are generated by fertilizer and pesticides taxes and are split equally among counties each year. The money can be used for total nitrate, coliform bacteria as well as arsenic testing in private wells.
Carmily Stone is bureau chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health Services at the Iowa Department of Public Health. She said, “Some counties don’t spend all of their money, and some counties go through their money rather quickly.”
Spending can vary for several reasons. Some counties have more rural water unities while others have more private wells, other counties simply do not have enough public health employees to provide services to everyone. Beginning in 2016, Iowa legislature added a mid-year funding reallocation for those counties that do not spend all of the Grants to Counties money.
Stone said, “We will look at the spending patterns of the counties. If there are counties that have already spent their money, that’s awesome. We want them to spend it all. But if there are counties that still have money left, then we will look at that and say, ‘Okay, how much money is still here?’ If there is quite a bit of money still sitting there, then we will consider a reallocation plan.”
Stone said that those funds leftover are given to counties that have spent all of their money for the year.
Despite the availability of free testing services and health risks associated with contaminated water, environmental health specialist Storjohann said that some people do not consider the issue a priority. Storjohann said that her parents and grandparents never tested their private wells. She said, “They were of the adage: ‘We’ve been drinking it this long, you know. It’s never harmed us.”
Storjohann continued, “I’ve gotten to the point now in the last number of years where I actually send out a personal letter to homeowners trying to explain our services, hoping to generate that interest and make them understand the good service this is and what we can provide and that this is all for their benefit.”
Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association filed the lawsuit following the release of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study which noted the company’s Sue Bee Honey contains trace amounts of glyphosate, the active ingredient found in Roundup. The advocacy groups acknowledge that the herbicide residue may be the result of neighboring row crop farmers’ actions, but still find issue with what they say is false advertising. They said, “labeling and advertising of Sue Bee products as ‘Pure,’ ‘100% Pure,’ ‘Natural,’ and ‘All-Natural’ is false, misleading and deceptive.” The Sioux Honey Association, founded in 1921, did not respond to requests for comment from the Des Moines Register.
The lawsuit also calls for increased government oversight over glyphosate levels in honey. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet set the maximum levels of glyphosate herbicide residue allowable to ensure consumer safety. In contrast, the European Union’s maximum residue limit for the herbicide is 50 parts per billion. One Iowa honey sample in the FDA’s study contained 653 parts per billion.
Glyphosate’s effect on human health is unclear. In one email between FDA officials, representatives say that EPA evaluations have “confirmed that glyphosate is almost non-toxic to humans and animals.” However, The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, has deemed the herbicide “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Glyphosate contamination in Iowa is a complicated issue. Twenty-five million acres of row crop were planted this year, the majority of which were treated with Roundup and other herbicides. Iowa’s 4,500 beekeepers face challenges finding safe locations for their hives. Andrew Joseph is the state apiarist and a beekeeper. He said, “I don’t think there’s anywhere that would be safe. I don’t think there’s any place for beekeepers to hide.” Joseph also said that any herbicide contamination is an issue for beekeepers, many of whom consider honey purity to be a source of pride. Bees travel in about a three mile radius from their hives when pollinating, which can make limiting their exposure to contaminants difficult. Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association, said, “I don’t know how you would fix that,” he added, “Bees need agriculture, and agriculture needs bees.”
Dorchester County officials aerially sprayed a pesticide called naled early Sunday morning, resulting in the death of millions of honeybees and other pollinators. Due to concern regarding four travel-related cases of Zika reported in the county, the chemical was sprayed over 15 square miles in order to eradicate mosquitoes that may further spread the virus. Naled has been used in the United States for over 50 years but has a contested reputation nationwide. The pesticide was banned in the European Union in 2012 after it was deemed to have a “potential and unacceptable risk” to human health and the environment. Conversely, naled has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 1959 and is sprayed over 16 million acres of U.S. land each year.
The scene painted by beekeeper Juanita Stanely was bleak. “On Saturday, it was total energy, millions of bees foraging, pollinating, making honey for winter,” she said in an interview with CNN on Monday, “Today, it stinks of death. Maggots and other insects are feeding on the honey and the baby bees who are still in the hives. It’s heartbreaking.”
Stanley, co-owner of Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply, said that she lost 46 hives and nearly 3 million bees on Sunday with no warning. She explained, “…when they sprayed by trucks; they told me in advance, and we talked about it so I could protect my bees. But nobody called me about the aerial spraying; nobody told me at all.” The pesticide application was the first aerial spray in the area in over 14 years. Dorchester County Administrator Jason Ward said that attempts were made to notify the public about the aerial spraying through an alert on its website posted two days before spraying. He added that county officials also reached out to beekeepers that were on the local mosquito control registry, but that one country employee failed to follow notification procedure.”He made a mistake in terms of going down his list, and failed to call,” Ward said.
Had she been warned, Stanley said that she would have told officials to do their spraying at night.” ‘Do it at night when bees are done foraging,’ I would have told them,” she said, tears filling her eyes, “But they sprayed at 8 a.m. Sunday, and all of my bees were out, doing their work by then.” Though county officials have publicly apologized, they maintain that the pesticide was used as directed. “We followed that recommendation,” said Ward, “which is also the policy laid out by the state, using a pesticide the state has approved for use.”
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a bee researcher at the University of Maryland, said that there are ways to eradicate infected mosquitoes without killing invaluable pollinators. He said the issue reaches beyond honey bees, “If you’re killing honeybees, you’re killing a lot of other non-honeybee pollinators, too, and those populations could take a long time to recover.”
Released on July 1st, the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal: A Call to Action by Stakeholders seeks to galvanize farmers, food manufacturers, grocers, consumers, and policy makers to reduce food waste by 50 percent before 2030. The initiative outlines best practices as identified by stakeholders including the creation of markets for aesthetically unappealing produce, implementation of community composting systems, and the development of new food storage technology that would prevent spoilage. The document is the direct result of a Food Recovery Summit that was held last November in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jordan: “Fifteen percent of what goes into the Iowa City landfill is food waste so the city is definitely on board with efforts to help individuals and businesses reduce food waste, and not only to save the food waste from going to the landfill but to save money as well.”
Participation in the national 50% reduction goal is voluntary, but states like Massachusetts and Vermont have already instituted commercial food waste bans. Food waste makes up a majority of U.S. landfills and quickly generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. EPA notes that food loss reduction would help to mitigate climate change, address food insecurity, and save producers money.
For more information about food waste reduction in the U.S., visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus dot org.
For the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.