EPA tells Iowa DNR to act on small particulates

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources take steps to reduce fine particulate matter statewide and especially in the Muscatine area, which has long had some of Iowa’s worst air quality.

Particulates contribute to premature deaths and serious heart and lung diseases, not to mention acid rain and other environmental problems. So it’s disappointing to see state officials react to the EPA message with more concern about the polluters than the public’s health.  

Perry Beeman reported this story in the Sunday Des Moines Register, and I recommend reading his whole article. Iowa is one of about two dozen states out of compliance with small particle pollution rules since 1997. As a result,

Late this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notified Iowa authorities that they’ll have two years to come up with plans to cut small-particle pollution.

A separate, more urgent order also gave the state 18 months to do the same in Muscatine, which has a history of violating federal clean air regulations. […]

[T]he EPA also is reviewing its particle-pollution regulations this fall, which could lead to more demands.

The state is negotiating with four Muscatine plants that may have to make changes: Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine Power and Water, Monsanto and UTLX, also known as Union Tank Car Co.

DNR director Roger Lande, a lawyer who once represented major industries in Muscatine and served as chairman of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, has steadfastly stayed out of the discussions, said Fitzsimmons, adding that he is being updated on the situation.

You can be sure that every DNR employee involved with those negotiations is familiar with Lande’s resume. Whether he’s directly involved or not, the DNR boss won’t look favorably on anyone seen to be coming down too hard on Muscatine-based companies.

Governor Terry Branstad has repeatedly criticized environmental regulations that in his view hurt businesses. His communications director Tim Albrecht told Beeman that

the administration is studying the new rules and is working with the DNR and business groups to make sure the requirements do not block future job growth.

“There is no higher priority for our administration than job creation, and the governor will remain vigilant in identifying any regulatory impediments to job creation in Iowa, and work to ensure Iowa businesses are able to grow, prosper and expand here,” Albrecht said.

How many Iowans have to live with dangerous levels of air pollution in the name of job creation? The 2010 census listed Muscatine’s population as 22,886. Do all of those people need to sacrifice their health so that businesses can evade pollution requirements for a few more years? While every community relies on major employers, state government should at least make some attempt to balance competing interests. Since 1997 Iowa has never bothered to comply with the rules on small particulates. Tens of thousands of lives are being shortened in the worst-affected neighborhoods and communities.

Iowa Association of Business and Industry President Michael Ralston told Beeman companies will work with the DNR, saying “Businesses want clean air and clean water.” That’s rich coming from ABI, which has hardly ever met an environmental rule it didn’t lobby against. Incidentally, on September 20 ABI is co-hosting a one-day “Iowa Environmental Conference” with the state’s Economic Development Authority, the successor to the Iowa Department of Economic Development. According to a press release, the event will “will offer information on several topics […] such as changes in banking regulations and business climate that might affect businesses, disaster preparedness and overcoming environmental regulations.”

The EPA had criticized Iowa for being a year late to adopt a statewide plan for reducing fine particulate matter. DNR Air Quality Bureau chief Catharine Fitzsimmons disputed that charge, saying the DNR was supposed to file the plan in early 2011, not 2010. She told Beeman that budget cuts have left vacancies on her bureau’s staff, impeding their work. The bureau has prioritized environmental reviews for companies seeking construction permits because “We recognize the importance of our economic recovery,” Fitzsimmons added. She praised President Barack Obama’s recent decision to set aside new smog rules proposed by the EPA.

Fitzsimmons said the delay in the ozone rule was welcome because it would have been difficult to get permits changed and in place before the next review came in 2013. […]

The toughest of the proposed limits on ozone would have put all of Iowa in violation, possibly forcing millions of dollars in plant improvements, Fitzsimmons said.

Obama’s decision to block the new smog rules was all about caving to big business. Tighter limits on smog won’t go into effect until several years after the 2013 review at the earliest, because of the lengthy rule-making process. In the meantime, thousands of U.S. residents will die prematurely. This is terrible and cynical policy for many reasons, which Brad Plumer explained well here. The administration buried the news by announcing it on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and in a nice Orwellian touch, tried to pre-empt critics by bragging the same day about other supposedly wonderful clean air policies.

As is usually the case when Obama caters to a conservative interest group, he didn’t get anything concrete from political opponents in exchange for his gesture. Republicans in Congress and rival presidential candidates are bashing the EPA just as much as they did two weeks ago. Business groups smell blood in the water and want the president to back off on all kinds of other regulations that would serve the public interest:

“I do not have a sense of the administration’s philosophy here or where or how they determine to draw a line between economic impacts versus outside organizational pressures,” said R. Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents the nation’s businesses.

The Chamber heaped praise on the White House for its ozone decision. But Josten, who said he is in frequent contact with White House Chief of Staff William Daley and other top officials, said the administration “still has a heavy hand” with hundreds of regulations in the pipeline, from those affecting the environment to labor and capital markets.

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