EPA Rolls Back Effluent Limits for Coal Power Plants


Graphic of a coal power plant
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 7, 2020

EPA recently announced it was finalizing the “Steam Electric Consideration Rule,” a rule that will roll back requirements limiting toxic discharge from coal power plants

EPA adopted standards to limit this discharge in 2015, but they extended the compliance date to the completion of this new rule. Now, the new rule is set to adopt weaker standards, provide a further extension for compliance and exempt facilities that will switch fuel sources or are scheduled to retire within a set time period, according to an article published by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC).

The rule outlines new “effluent limit guidelines” under the Clean Water Act for nitrogen and toxic metals like mercury, arsenic and selenium. These guidelines set water quality standards for industrial discharges based on “the best technology that is economically achievable” for power plants. Instead of setting a strict technology-based standard, this allows facilities to determine what treatment to install that will meet discharge limitations.

“Regulations are meant to be protective of the environment, not the industries that cause pollution,” said IEC Water Program Director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson in an IEC article. “Over the last several years, EPA has been rolling back environmental standards in favor of economic interests. This abdication of regulatory responsibility is a clear danger to public health and the environment.”

EPA claims the new rule will do a better job of reducing pollution than the 2015 rule. However, they base their calculations off of the assumption that facilities will instal better technology and achieve more reductions than the rule actually requires.

Inspector General sets Environmental Justice as a Priority for the EPA


Screenshot of EJSCREEN map of Iowa wastewater discharge.

Maxwell Bernstein | July 22, 2020

The Environmental Agency’s Office of Inspector General set the integration of environmental justice into the agency as a priority, according to a letter from the inspector general. 

“Across the country, communities of low-income and people of color live adjacent to heavily polluted industries or “hot spots” of chemical pollution,” the inspector general said. “For example, studies show that 70 percent of hazardous waste sites officially listed on the National Priorities List under Superfund are located within one mile of federally assisted housing.”

The inspector general addressed gaps in environmental justice when it came to air quality management, drinking water, toxic releases to surface waters, Superfund sites, emergency response, and environmental education. The EPA laid out a plan to improve environmental justice through:

  • Setting standards and regulations
  • Facility permitting decisions
  • Grant awards
  • Reviews of proposed federal agency actions 
  • Enforcement decisions

The EPA’s map tool Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJSCREEN) provides maps of environmental hazards and demographics to help inform the public when it comes to environmental justice concerns. 

DNR Sets Stricter Water Quality Thresholds for Iowa Beaches


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 15, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to follow stricter standards this summer for the amount of toxins found in the water at public beaches.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by cyanobacteria in algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes. It poses health threats to humans and animals that swim at beaches with high levels of the toxin and can cause abdominal pain, blistering, pneumonia and vomiting if ingested. Dogs have also died from being exposed to it, according to an Iowa Environmental Council news release.

In 2006, Iowa DNR began using a threshold of 20 micrograms per liter to issue beach advisories. However, they decided to lower it to 8 micrograms per litre this year after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended it.

The DNR currently monitors only a small percentage of Iowa’s recreational beaches, but they were able to issue a number of advisories and temporarily close beaches on Lake Macbride, Spirit Lake and Lake Rathbun last year when microcystin levels exceeded the threshold. The number of advisories issued this year is likely to be much higher than past years under the new guidelines.

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


Via Flickr

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


(Image Via Flickr)

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.

Supreme Court ruling applies Clean Water Act to groundwater pollution


Image from Wikimedia Commons

Tyler Chalfant | April 27th, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that excluded pollutants that travel through groundwater before reaching protected surface waters. Environmental groups have called the County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund decision “a huge victory for clean water.”

In a 6-3 ruling, the majority of the court rejected what Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the “extreme” positions of both sides. Under the Clean Water Act, facilities are required to obtain permits for point-source pollution, which originates from a single identifiable source, into navigable waters. The appellate court had ruled in favor of environmental groups arguing that this applied to pollution that “actually and foreseeably reach navigable surface waters,” a standard that Breyer said was too broad.

The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, had sided with a wastewater plant on Maui, Hawaii, arguing that the law applied only to direct pollution into navigable waters. Earlier this year, the federal agency removed protections for smaller waterways, replacing an Obama-era rule. This decision limits the pollution allowed by that change as well, requiring permits for pollution into some smaller bodies of water if it functionally pollutes a larger, protected body as well. 

Water quality advocates warn that these permits are easy to obtain, but the decision means that facilities can face lawsuits over, and have limits placed on, their groundwater discharges.

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


(Image via Flickr)

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.

EPA rolls back fuel efficiency standards, the U.S. government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis


Photo by Eric Demarcq, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | April 1st, 2020

On Tuesday, the Trump administration weakened Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. Over the past three years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back numerous efforts to combat climate change, but the rules compelling companies to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles were considered to be the federal government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis yet.

The change lowers the rate at which auto companies are required to improve efficiency each year from 4.7% to 1.5%. This falls well below the 2.4% increase per year that the industry has said it would make even without regulations. 

Changing these standards will allow vehicles to emit about one billion tons more carbon-dioxide, equal to about a fifth of U.S. annual emissions. Critics warn that Americans will also be exposed to more dangerous air pollution as a result, and will be forced to spend more on gasoline. Communities near oil-processing facilities and highways, which often consist of poorer Americans and people of color, will face the worst effects.

The EPA argues that the change will make automobiles cheaper, allowing more Americans to buy newer, safer cars. Although the EPA has previously found that the benefits outweigh the costs of the Obama-era rules, they now argue the opposite by citing a more recent study that researchers say is fundamentally flawed

EPA revises plan to restrict use of environmental research


Photo of EPA Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler from The White House, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | March 6th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this week that it had revised a proposal giving preference to studies in which all data is publicly available. Scientists have warned that this proposal could allow the federal government to dismiss or downplay important environmental research.

The revised proposal takes a step back from completely excluding any research that doesn’t release its raw data. This includes medical information that is protected by privacy laws or confidentiality agreements, as was a study that definitively linked air pollution to premature deaths. 

Critics have said this measure is one of the government’s most far-reaching restrictions on science, and that the Trump administration’s real goal is to undermine the science behind existing regulations. Others warned that it took scientific decision-making out of the hands of scientists.

Andrew R. Wheeler, the current administrator of the EPA, said that the proposal is intended to bring greater transparency to government research, to ensure that studies “are available for transparent review by qualified scientists.”

New rule removes certain bodies of water from federal regulation


Photo by Jason Johnson Iowa NRCS, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | January 28th, 2020

The Trump Administration finalized the replacement of another Obama-era environmental regulation last week. Under the Clean Water Act, the 2015 “Waters of the United States” rule placed limits on polluting chemicals that could be used near streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. 

The rule, which impacted farmers, rural landowners, and real estate developers, was repealed in September of last year. President Trump has called it “one of the worst examples of federal” overreach, and now has replaced it with the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.” 

This rule limits federally regulated waters to four categories: the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters. It also excludes from federal jurisdiction wetlands, previously converted cropland, and waste treatment systems. 

Spokesmen for the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Gas Association celebrated the new rule for its limiting of federal power. Environmental groups have warned, however, that the change could put the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk of contamination. A panel of government appointed scientists said earlier this month that the rule “neglects established science” by excluding certain bodies of water.