Bad news for Iowans who breathe air and drink water

I wish I had better news to share on Earth Day, but the Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued its annual State of the Environment report this week, and it’s not encouraging for people who like to breathe air and drink water. From Perry Beeman’s report in the Des Moines Register:

Last year culminated a three-year run in which air pollution exceeded health thresholds 125 times – up 33 percent from the previous three-year reporting period.

[Iowa DNR Director Richard] Leopold said that’s disturbing as production was down at many factories because of the economy.

Most of the problem: fine particles from hog confinements, cars and power plants, whose emissions blend ammonia and sulfuric or nitric acid in the air.

Fine particulate matter, also known as PM 2.5, has been linked to many life-threatening illnesses and causes thousands of premature deaths every year. That’s another reason to be thankful that utility companies abandoned plans to build new coal-fired power plants in Waterloo and Marshalltown last year. (Side note: could someone please inform the three “pro-life” Republican gubernatorial candidates that coal combustion is hazardous to human health? Terry Branstad, Bob Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts all favor building more coal-fired power plants in Iowa.)

As for the other major contributors to poor air quality in our state, the Iowa legislature has done little about air pollution from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) beyond passing a time- and money-wasting odor study bill in 2008. Nor have our state’s leaders done enough to fund alternate modes of transportation, which could reduce vehicle miles per capita traveled by car (and the associated fine particulate emissions).

The DNR’s report showed statistically insignificant improvements in Iowa water quality, but not enough to lift us out of the “poor” category. While new “antidegradation rules” on water quality may protect some Iowa waterways from getting worse in the future, we have a long way to go to make our lakes and rivers safe for recreation and other uses.

Public demand for usable waterways is increasing; the DNR’s report showed that more Iowans are using state parks, boating and buying fishing licenses. It’s therefore baffling that the DNR is proposing to reduce protection for 408 Iowa stream segments this year. The Iowa Environmental Council has much more background on this issue here. Public comments to the DNR are needed by April 30, and it only takes a few minutes to send a message to the relevant DNR official (click here for contact information and talking points).

For those who like to fish: please be aware of the DNR recommends eating fish from certain lakes and rivers no more often than once a week because of elevated mercury levels. Coal combustion from power plants is the main source of mercury pollution in our waterways.

Share any relevant thoughts or Earth Day plans in this thread. I see that the Sierra Club of Iowa, Moveon.Org and 1Sky are organizing a rally outside Representative Leonard Boswell’s office (300 Locust in Des Moines) at noon today to urge Boswell to oppose various “dirty air” bills proposed in Congress. They are asking people to “dress in rain gear, such as raincoats, rain hats, umbrellas, galoshes, etc., to make the point of increasing severe weather due to climate change.”

There’s also an Earth Day Trash Bash cleanup event in downtown Des Moines this afternoon, followed by a celebration in the Simon Estes ampitheater. Here’s a description of last year’s cleanup.

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ACTION: Help protect air quality in northwest Iowa

An oil refinery proposed for a South Dakota site near Sioux City poses a threat to air quality in northwest Iowa, I recently learned from Dr. Jim Redmond, chair of the Sierra Club’s Northwest Iowa Group. The Hyperion Energy Center would be the sixth-largest oil refinery in the country. It would emit large quantities of several pollutants, including particulate matter 2.5, which is hazardous to human health.

The South Dakota Department of Natural Resources (DENR) and the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment have issued a preconstruction air permit to the Hyperion Energy Center. Unfortunately, the permit omits relevant information. For instance, instead of using five years of data on ambient air conditions in Sioux Falls and Sioux City, only one year of information for Sioux Falls was used. The environmental impact on Sioux City (25 miles downwind from the proposed facility) will certainly be greater than on Sioux Falls (50 miles upwind).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criticized the draft air permit for the Hyperion project, but South Dakota’s DENR did not incorporate their suggestions.

Because the Hyperion project will adversely affect air quality in and around Sioux City, Iowans should contact the EPA administrator in Region 7 (containing Iowa). South Dakota lies in the EPA’s Region 8.

Redmond sent me extensive background information on this matter and sample letters to the EPA, which I’ve posted after the jump.

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Good advice for state legislators

I was down at the capitol today for the Iowa Environmental Council’s annual “lobby day.” I am active with several groups that had tables there.

If you’ve never attended one of these events, I highly recommend the experience. It is easy to introduce yourself to legislators and talk about your group or the policies you’re supporting.

Some organizations, such as the Iowa Policy Project, had detailed reports to hand out today. Those are quite useful, and I hope they find a receptive audience at the statehouse, but you don’t always need that much detail for a conversation with a state representative or senator.

It helps to have a concise document (a page or two) making your case for specific policies or bills. These “wish lists” are not only for legislators, but also for anyone who wants to know more about your group.

The Iowa Environmental Council’s press release sums up the key points of that organization’s message today:

February 10, 2009

Iowa Environmental Council Asks Legislators for Burn Ban, More Energy Efficiency Programs

DES MOINES – Advocates for clean water and air, clean renewable energy, and sustainable funding for natural resources filled the Statehouse rotunda today to offer lawmakers suggestions for protecting Iowa’s precious natural resources in lean economic times.

Marian Riggs Gelb, executive director for the Iowa Environmental Council, encouraged legislators to act quickly to support policy options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as outlined in a recent report by the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council. Gelb, who served on the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council, stressed that the energy efficiency project options provide significant cost savings to energy consumers and expand upon the programs already provided by utilities. Another option Gelb pointed to in the report was land use planning that incorporates sustainable community design and reduces vehicle miles traveled and expanded passenger rail and transit choices.

Gelb also called for legislators to request a new comprehensive state water plan and accurate, up-to-date floodplain maps from the Department of Natural Resources.

“We need a better understanding of the hydrology of our state. The last time the state made a comprehensive assessment of its water resources was 1978,” said Gelb.

Amy Broadmoore, the Council’s air quality program director, said the Council supports proposed legislation that would enact a statewide ban on burning within city limits.

“Asthma, bronchitis and heart attacks are all linked to high levels of fine particulate matter concentrations. These concentrations, in much of Eastern Iowa, are near to or exceeding the Clean Air Act’s standards. A burn ban would help protect Iowans, especially young children and the elderly,” said Broadmoore.

Other speakers included Representative Paul Bell, from Newton, and Senator David Johnson, from Ocheyedan. Like Gelb, they called for legislators to pass the measure currently eligible for debate by the Iowa House and Senate, which would allow Iowans to vote, in 2010, on a constitutionally protected trust fund for programs to protect and enhance Iowa’s natural areas, farmland and sources of drinking water. Gelb noted that Iowa ranks near the bottom in spending for protection of its natural resources.

Iowa Environmental Council member organizations and partners represented at the Statehouse today included 1000 Friends of Iowa; American Institute of Architects-Iowa Chapter; Center for Energy and Environmental Education; Iowa Conservation Education Coalition; Iowa Farmers Union; Iowa Global Warming; Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation; Iowa Policy Project; Iowa Renewable Energy Association; Iowa Rivers Revival; Raccoon River Watershed Association; Trees Forever; University Hygienic Lab; Women, Food and Agriculture Network.

###End###

This is a great “wish list” because it advocates for both specific policies that would improve air and water quality as well as broader recommendations of the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council.

If you want to receive updates and action alerts from the Iowa Environmental Council during the legislative session, click here to sign up for their I-CALL list.

Please share your experiences lobbying state, local or federal officials in this thread.

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Alliant may walk away from the Marshalltown coal plant

On Wednesday the Iowa Utilities Board delivered a long-awaited ruling on “ratemaking principles” for the coal-fired power plant that Interstate Power and Light (a subsidiary of Alliant Energy) wants to build near Marshalltown. The ratemaking principles determine how much of a return the investor-owned utility can make on its investment. A higher return for the utility means the company can pass more of the cost of building a new plant onto customers.

The Iowa Utilities Board’s decision was well below what Alliant requested and not far above what the Iowa Consumer Advocate’s Office was seeking. The Cedar Rapids Gazette quoted an energy industry analyst:

“We expect LNT (Alliant Energy) will not accept the ratemaking principles as approved by the Iowa Utilities Board, instead allowing the proposal to die,” said David Parker of Robert W. Baird in Milwaukee. He said Alliant will probably look instead to building more wind and natural-gas electric turbines.

At Century of the Common Iowan, noneed4thneed links to an article from the Marshalltown Times-Republican that similarly suggested the future of the project is in doubt.

Alliant’s official statement left options open but made clear that the company was not happy with the ratemaking ruling. Excerpt:

In its decision, the IUB established a return on equity of 10.1 percent and a cost cap of $2816.00 per kilowatt, excluding AFUDC. IPL had requested a return on equity of 12.55 percent and a cost cap of $3483.00 per kilowatt, excluding AFUDC. IPL has proposed to own 350 megawatts of the facility’s output, with the remaining output owned by other partners or included in purchased power agreements.

“We will need to review the IUB’s written order to determine our next steps,” states Tom Aller, president-IPL. “However, the conditions placed by the IUB on the proposed hybrid power plant present a number of challenges in today’s financial climate, and we are disappointed that this decision seemingly does not take that reality into account. We will continue to work with our partners to determine how today’s decision will impact our respective companies’ long-term generation plans. IPL remains committed to pursuing safe, reliable, environmentally responsible and cost effective energy supply options to meet Iowa’s future energy needs.”

I would not be surprised if Alliant follows the lead of LS Power, which opted last month not to pursue a proposed coal-fired power plant near Waterloo. Alliant’s subsidiary in Wisconsin may ask state regulators to allow an emergency rate hike because the economic slump has reduced demand for electricity:

Utility executives said the increase would be needed to offset a dramatic decline in power sales because of the recession.

With the closing of the Janesville General Motors plant and other factory cutbacks, the utility is forecasting power sales to drop 6% this year.

“It is understandable that our customers find it frustrating that the economic hardships many of them are experiencing could in turn compel us to increase their electric bills,” said Patricia Kampling, the utility’s chief financial officer, during a conference call Thursday.

Think about that for a minute. All along Alliant and their boosters in Marshalltown have been telling us that a new coal-fired power plant is needed to meet increased electricity needs. But future demand is almost surely going to be below what they have projected.

We could reduce our baseload needs further with an aggressive energy efficiency policy.

While several analysts interpreted Wednesday’s ratemaking ruling as bad news for Alliant, it’s worth noting that Plains Justice had a different take:

“The Iowa Utilities Board has missed an important opportunity to protect our state’s economy and shield  Iowa consumers from a significant electricity rate increase,” said Carrie La Seur, President of Plains Justice.

“New coal power plant proposals are being canceled across the country because they cost too much and pose too many financial risks. The IUB has really let Iowans down by opting for an expensive, polluting coal plant instead of the available cheaper alternative of aggressive energy efficiency programs,” she added.

I put the full text of the Plains Justice release after the jump.

On a related note, Plains Justice passed along this news via e-mail a few days ago:

Last week, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) denied a petition to re-open the generating certificate proceedings for the proposed Marshalltown coal plant. The generating certificate grants permission for the power plant to be built.

A petition for re-hearing had been filed by the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate and joined by Plains Justice on behalf of Community Energy Solutions, Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Iowa Renewable Energy Association (the Coalition). Now that the petition has been denied, the IUB’s decision to grant the generating certificate can be appealed in state court although it is not yet known whether anyone will appeal.

A lawsuit would only add to the delay and expense of building this power plant.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is expected to issue a draft air permit for the Marshalltown plant very soon. Opponents of this 50-year investment in the wrong direction on energy will want to make their voices heard during the public comment period on that permit. Coal-fired power plants are a major source of fine-particulate matter pollution, which is linked to various respiratory illnesses.

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Emperor "Clean Coal" has no clothes

A Siegel has a great diary up on a new television advertising campaign launched by the “Reality Coalition” today to convey this message: “In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.” I love the use of humor in the ad:

After the jump, I’ve posted the whole press release issued by the Reality Coalition. You can sign up to join their effort by clicking here.

My only concern about this message is that it suggests greenhouse-gas emissions are the only thing that makes coal “dirty.” Coal-fired power plants are not only a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, they are also one of the leading sources of fine particulate matter linked to asthma and other respiratory problems. This fine particulate matter, also known as particulate matter 2.5, “is much smaller in size and a more serious health hazard” than larger soot particles known as particulate matter 10.

Even if greenhouse gases and all other pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants could be controlled, coal mining itself would still create adverse environmental impacts. Making coal “clean” would require a lot more than capturing the carbon emissions.

Quibbles aside, I think this commercial is outstanding and look forward to more from the Reality Coalition.

I hope that future advertising will directly combat the coal industry’s claim that we need new coal plants to meet future demand for electricity. In April, Iowa regulators approved Alliant’s application to build a new coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown, and later explained that they did so because they think renewable energy sources will not be sufficient to meet Iowa’s base-load electricity needs in the future.

The environmental movement needs to convince not only the public but also policy-makers from Barack Obama down to state-level regulators that Al Gore’s vision of ending our reliance on carbon-based fuels is realistic.

UPDATE: A commenter at MyDD pointed me to a recent report from Greenpeace called The True Cost of Coal. It contains much more information about health and environmental hazards associated with mining and burning coal.  

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DNR should strictly limit pollutants from proposed coal plant

Ever since the Iowa Utilities Board voted 2-1 to approve Alliant’s application to build a new coal-fired power plant outside Marshalltown, environmentalists have been hoping the Iowa Department of Natural Resources would be strict when issuing a draft air permit for the plant.

Coal-fired power plants are not only a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, they are also one of the leading sources of fine particulate matter linked to asthma and other respiratory problems.

Neila Seaman, director of the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter, wrote an op-ed column published in the Des Moines Register on Monday, and she doesn’t sound optimistic about the DNR’s likely action in this case:

To regulate greenhouse gases and particulate matter 2.5, the DNR should require Alliant to perform a “best available control technology” analysis, known as a BACT analysis. The analysis considers all control technologies available on the market, evaluates what would control the pollutants for this type of facility and takes into account the technology already installed to control the pollutant. With that information, the best technology installed is used to set limits. The limits that are set in the permit would result in the best control of that pollutant. Without this analysis, the permits will not control the pollution from particulate matter 2.5 and greenhouse gases at all.

In other words, without the best-available-control-technology analysis, there will be no regulation of the pollutant in the air permit. With no regulation in the air permit, Alliant will be able to spew unlimited amounts of greenhouse gases and particulate matter 2.5 into the atmosphere.

Currently, the DNR appears to be unwilling to require a best-available-control-technology analysis, asserting rules specifically regulating these pollutants are not in place. The Iowa Chapter of Sierra Club respectfully disagrees. The DNR also maintains that particulate matter 10 – a larger soot particle – is being regulated and, therefore, there is no need to regulate particulate matter 2.5. Although the DNR does control limits on particulate matter 10, particulate matter 2.5 is much smaller in size and a more serious health hazard, but will not necessarily be controlled by the particulate matter 10 limits.

Federal regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, recent court decisions, and even DNR’s own regulations require regulation of particulate matter 2.5 and greenhouse gases. And yet, it appears the DNR is not going to require a best-available-control-technology analysis for particulate matter 2.5 and for greenhouse gases.

I don’t understand why the DNR would decide against regulating the fine particulate matter produced by this plant, given the proven impact of emissions from coal facilities on public health.

Let’s hope Seaman’s pessimism turns out to be unfounded.

Speaking of the coal plant, I contacted the Iowa Utilities Board to find out whether its chairman, John Norris, plans to serve out his term, which expires in 2011. (His wife Jackie Norris recently accepted an offer to become First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.) Staff at the Iowa Utilities Board told me Norris has not announced a decision. I will write a separate post for this blog once I hear whether he plans to stay or go.

UPDATE: Thanks to Bleeding Heartland user RF for pointing me to this Des Moines Register article:

Iowa Utilities Board Chairman John Norris, whose wife has been named chief of staff to incoming first lady Michelle Obama, said Monday he is interested in an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Norris, a veteran Democratic campaign operative, said he would consider serving on the commission or as chairman of the agency with jurisdiction over electricity sales, wholesale electric rates and other energy sales regulation. […]

“It would be fair to say I’m interested in either FERC chairmanship or a commissioner spot,” Norris said. “There are other things I’m interested in and the transition team is rightly focused on filling Cabinet posts and putting together an administration. I’m respecting their timetable and would consider whatever position in the administration where I can be most helpful.”

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