Blue-green algae toxins harm children and pets


Lakeside Park Boat Launch
Photo from Winnebago Waterways, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | August 28, 2019

A child was poisoned earlier this summer in southern Iowa by a blue-green algae toxin that has been blamed for the deaths of six dogs across the country this summer. The algae, also called cyanobacteria, can cause rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases liver failure. It is especially dangerous for children and pets.

Overgrowth of this algae occurs in waters that are rich in nutrients. In Iowa, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in water primarily comes from fertilizer runoff. Besides the harmful effects of their toxins, overgrowth of these algae can also impact other forms of life beneath the water’s surface by blocking sunlight and stealing oxygen and nutrients from other organisms. 

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources tests state park beaches for microcystins, the toxic byproduct of blue-green algae, and issues swimming advisories if the water contains more than 20 micrograms per liter. However, this is less restrictive than the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended standards of 8 micrograms per liter. 

Cyanobacteria blooms often look like foam or floating paint near the water’s surface, though they can also hide beneath the water’s surface and may not be visible. When cyanobacteria die, they produce a bad smell, similar to rotting plants. The Center for Disease Control recommends that people avoid swimming and boating in water where algae appears or where water is discolored, and to rinse off as soon as possible if you are exposed to water that may contain cyanobacteria.

Iowa reacts to proposed EPA Clean Water Rule rollback


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Regulation over streams on farmland is in dispute (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 3rd, 2019

The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the 2015 Clean Water Rule would reduce federal jurisdiction over wetlands, streams and other small water bodies on Iowa farmland. Some Iowans see the proposal, officially made in mid-December, as a win for farmers, while others see it as a hit to much needed water quality regulation in the state.

Since the start of his term, Pres. Trump has wanted to limit Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined “Waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act of 1972. This increased the protected area by about 3 percent (according to an op-ed from Bloomberg News) by adding more streams and neighboring wetlands, ponds and impoundments into federal jurisdiction and reducing those waterbodies that could once be given/denied protection on a “case-by-case” basis.

The current administration proposes removing wetlands without clear surface connection to larger bodies of water from protection, as well as “ephemeral” streams that only flow with rainfall or snowmelt, about 18 percent of the country’s total streams. The proposal is now undergoing 60 days of public comment.

In November, the country already allowed Iowa to halt enforcement of the rule until disagreement over it was settled in court. Most farmers seem to want that allowance made permanent by the Clean Water Rule rollback. The Iowa Farm Bureau shared a statement of support in December after the EPA announced the proposed rollback, and called the Obama Era rule an “overreach.”

As Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters, “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government.”

Iowa has serious water quality issues, however, caused for the most part by runoff from farm fields containing harmful nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus. The state recognizes the importance of on-farm streams and wetlands in managing soil and water quality, and encourages the construction of buffers between crops and waterways to minimize runoff into streams or wetlands.

Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer who uses a saturated buffer on his farm to protect a creek, told the Sioux City Journal he is proactive about water quality management, but thinks the Clean Water Rule “cast a shadow” over a landowner’s entire farm.

Others believe the rule was necessary, however, and think the proposed rollback will worsen Iowa’s water problem. A staff editorial in the Gazette called Ernst’s statements “hyperbole” and pushed for more focus on the water itself in the discussions surrounding the proposed rule change.

“If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board,” it reads. “Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s ‘overreach’ with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.”

EPA announces $40 million for diesel emission reductions


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Commercial trucks are a huge source of diesel emissions and a major target of the EPA DERA grant program (flickr). 

Julia Poska | December 27th, 2018

Regional, state, local and tribal agencies currently have the opportunity to clean up their air on the Environmental Protection Agency’s dollar. The EPA announced last week that it plans on awarding approximately $40 million in grants as part of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act. 

These grants will fund projects that reduce diesel emissions from school buses, commercial vehicles, locomotives and non-road equipment and emissions exposure for local communities. The EPA is especially looking to benefit communities that currently have poor air quality and for projects that will engage locals even once the project has ended.

This program began in 2008 and has awarded funds to the Iowa Department of Transportation in the past. The state matched the 2018 DERA allocation of $275,123 with funds from the Volkswagen settlement to put over $500,000 towards cleaning Iowa’s air.

Interested agencies have until March 6 to apply. Those in EPA region 7, including Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska can apply for projects up to $1.5 million.

EPA cuts back fuel efficiency standards


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Despite claims from the EPA that sales of electric vehicles have gone down since 2013, research shows that sales of plug-in hybrid, battery electric and fuel-cell vehicles have increased since that year. (Roadside pictures/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 4, 2018

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it is rolling back Obama-era automobile fuel efficiency standards.

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.

The EPA’s announcement cited automobile industry arguments against the standards like significantly more expensive vehicles and driver safety. These claims were supported by industry-funded research. The EPA cited one study, for example, which estimated that the price of each vehicle would increase by $6,000 if the current regulations stayed in place. However, many other research groups found the study to be flawed and maintain that increased fuel efficiency standards will actually raise the cost of automobiles by about $2,000.

Dave Cooke, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote a blogpost in response. He said,

“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.”

According to its press announcement, the EPA has begun working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to lower corporate average fuel economy (CAFE). Scientists suggest that the slashed regulation would have been akin to closing down 140 coal plants for a year, offsetting 570 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Simple way to recycle methane discovered


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Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

Climate change deniers considered for EPA science advisory board


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EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is charged with making the final decision on new Science Advisory Board members. (Gage Skidmore/flickr)

Jenna Ladd| September 19, 2017

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.

In a 2016 piece for the National Review, Pruitt wrote that the debate on climate change was “far from settled,” despite more than 97 percent of active scientists agreeing that Earth’s climate is warming due to human activity.

The public is welcome to comment on the list of EPA Science Advisory Board nominees through September 28.

President Trump’s budget plan slashes EPA budget


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Quickly melting ice sheets in Illulissat, Greenland are evidence of Earth’s warming climate. (United Nations/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 17, 2017

President Donald Trump plans to cut U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding by 31 percent according to his budget plan released Thursday.

In all, the proposed plan would cut $2.6 billion dollars from the agency and eliminate some 3,200 EPA jobs. Gina McCarthy was EPA administrator during the Obama administration. She said, “Literally and figuratively, this is a scorched earth budget that represents an all out assault on clean air, water, and land.”

While funding will be slashed for climate change research and Superfund site reclamation, some EPA programs will be eliminated all together. Among them are urban air quality improvement efforts, infrastructure projects on Native American reservations, energy efficiency improvement programs and water quality improvement work in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said, “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.’ So that is a specific tie to his campaign.” More than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate warming over the last century are due to human activity, according to NASA.

In line with a recent report written by over 400 medical doctors, Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies said, “If such cuts are realized, many more people will die prematurely and get sick unnecessarily due to air, water and waste pollution.”

Other environmental activists and scientists were also quick to speak out against the proposed cuts. Fred Krupp is the director of the Environmental Defense Fund, he said, “This is an all-out assault on the health of our planet and the health and safety of the American people.” Krupp continued, “Cleaning up our air and protecting our waters are core American values. The ‘skinny budget’ threatens those values — and puts us all at risk.”

President Trump’s budget outline still must be approved by Congress and is expected to change. The Administration’s final budget will be released in May.