Some Iowa power plants among largest U.S. air polluters

Several Iowa power plants are among the largest emitters of certain toxic heavy metals, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

The Environmental Integrity Project is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March of 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for more effective enforcement of environmental laws.” The group’s latest report examined power plant emissions of six toxic heavy metals (arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and selenium) and the gas hydrochloric acid. Data are based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory. The authors acknowledge, “As with all company self-reported data compiled by government agencies, the TRI data may contain errors and omissions.”

Click here for the full report on “America’s Top Power Plant Toxic Air Polluters” (pdf). From the summary on page 1:

The power plants that generate electricity to run our homes, businesses, and factories are also the largest source of dangerous toxic air pollution, including mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals as well as acid gases. These toxics can cause serious environmental impacts and health effects, especially for children, developing fetuses, and vulnerable populations. Exposure to the air toxics that are emitted from coal-fired power plants can cause cancer,1 damage to the liver, kidney, and the nervous and circulatory systems,2 and respiratory effects including asthma, decreased lung function, and bronchitis.3

For decades, the electric power industry has delayed cleanup and lobbied against public health rules designed to reduce pollution. But, the technology and pollution control equipment necessary to clean up toxic emissions are widely available and are working at some power plants across the country. There is no reason for Americans to continue to live with unnecessary risks to their health and to the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now under a court-ordered deadline to finalize long delayed rules to clean up emissions of mercury and other harmful power plant air toxics. In addition to lowering mercury emissions, the rule will reduce other fine particle heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, and lead, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars each year. EPA has estimated that the power plant air toxics rule will avoid between 6,800 and 17,000 premature deaths each year, and will result in annual savings of $48 to $140 billion.4

Power plant toxic emissions have declined over the past decade, but the decrease is being driven by a few companies that are installing modern pollution controls while the rest of the nation’s power plants are doing very little. The data show that toxic emissions can be reduced, and have been at a number of plants, but that a strong national rule is needed to protect all Americans equally, and to force the dirtiest power plants to clean up.

In addition, a relatively small handful of the nation’s most polluting power plants generate a disproportionate amount of reported toxic emissions.

A graph on page 3 shows that toxic emissions from electric power plants “dwarf other industrial sectors.” Many power plants have installed effective pollution control technologies thanks to laws in 17 states (not including Iowa) that limit mercury emissions from coal-fired facilities. But few utilities have taken advantage of the available technology in the absence of government regulations.

As a whole, Iowa didn’t rank in the bottom 15 states for hazardous air pollutants, but a few Iowa facilities were among the worst emitters of four heavy metals.

Three Iowa power plants, all operated by MidAmerican Energy and owned by Berkshire Hathaway, were among the top 20 percent of chromium emitters nationwide: the Walter Scott Jr Energy Center in Council Bluffs, the George Neal North station in Sergeant Bluff (Woodbury County) and the George Neal South power plant in Salix (Woodbury County). Table 4 on pages 11 and 12 of the report contains details about chromium emissions at each facility.

Four Iowa power plants were among the top 20 percent of lead emitters: the Walter Scott Jr Center, George Neal North, the Pella Municipal Power Plant (operated by Pella Municipal Power & Light) and the Prairie Creek Generating Station (operated by Alliant in Cedar Rapids). Table 5 on pages 14 through 16 of the report contains details about lead emissions at each facility.

Four Iowa power plants were among the top 20 percent of mercury emitters: the Louisa Generating Station (operated by MidAmerican in Louisa County), the Ottumwa Generating Station (operated by Alliant in Ottumwa), the Walter Scott Jr Center, and George Neal South. Table 6 on pages 17 through 19 of the report contains details about mercury emissions at each facility.

Two Iowa power plants were among the top 20 percent of nickel emitters: George Neal North and the Walter Scott Jr Energy Center. Table 7 on pages 21 and 22 of the report contains details about mercury emissions at each facility.

No Iowa power plants were among the 20 percent worst nationwide for arsenic, selenium, or hydrochloric acid emissions.

MidAmerican has received praise and even awards for using advanced technology to reduce toxic pollution from the Walter Scott Jr Energy Center. But as the Environmental Integrity Project’s report shows, that Council Bluffs facility is still a major source of toxic heavy metals in the air. The Walter Scott center is also Iowa’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, but that’s a topic for another post.

This week the Environmental Integrity Project reported on groundwater contamination from coal ash waste sites in ten states. The report (pdf) forcused on “peak concentrations of pollutants measured in groundwater at 19 sites not previously identified.” Two of those disposal sites are in Iowa: the Prairie Creek Generating Station (operated by Alliant in Cedar Rapids) and the Fair Station (operated by Central Iowa Power Cooperative in Muscatine).

Bleeding Heartland cheered the demise of planned coal-fired power plants in Marshalltown and Waterloo in 2009. At that time, some commenters chided me for opposing what they saw as economic development projects. The Environmental Integrity Project’s reporting is a good reminder of the hidden costs of coal combustion. Even from high-tech power plants, burning coal and disposing the waste takes a huge toll on human health.

On a related note, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report on the country’s 50 dirtiest power plants for mercury emissions last month. MidAmerican Energy’s facility in Louisa County was 50th on that list (see the table on page 3 of this pdf file). Several other coal-fired power plants in Iowa were not far behind: Alliant’s Ottumwa Generating Station, MidAmerican’s Walter Scott Jr Energy Center in Council Bluffs and George Neal North in Sergeant Bluff. Appendix 1 on pages 13 and 14 of that report list the mercury emissions for all the coal-fired power plants operated by investor-owned utilities in Iowa.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

  • What Will Iowa's Energy Future Be?

    Thanks for posting this information. The question very few people in the state are asking is What will Iowa’s energy future be?

    The old coal plants will be retired, as they are reaching the end of their useful life, and along with them goes the toxins you mentioned. Duane Arnold and the Quad Cities Generating Station will also be retired as they have reached the end of their useful life, or will once the extensions of their original license are finished.

    There is no clear energy policy in the state. The flavor of the month among the electric utilities is nuclear power and to get investors willing to pony up capital, the many financial risks of nuclear power need to be dealt with. The current bill in the legislature would enable those risks to be transferred to and paid by rate payers, thus presumably attracting capital. This is a costly and wrong minded solution that would tie the hands of the Iowa Utilities Board if enacted.

    What will Iowa’s energy future be? Ask it of your electric utility, ask it of your state senator, ask it until the question is adequately answered.

    Thanks for publishing Bleeding Heartland.

    Regards, Paul Deaton

    • wasn't Duane Arnold's license just renewed?

      I think Iowa’s only nuclear power plant will be in service for quite a long time–my understanding was that the license was just renewed within the past year.

      I do not believe any new nuclear reactors will be constructed in Iowa. I believe the bill under consideration in the Iowa Senate is primarily a back-door way for MidAmerican to raise rates. If they decide five years down the road not to build after all (because other aspects of financing don’t come together, or the nuclear regulatory commission doesn’t approve the modular design), they don’t have to refund the extra money to the ratepayers. Not a single new nuclear power plant has been built in any of the states that passed similar legislation before Iowa.

      We need to create many more incentives for small-scale wind and solar power in Iowa.

      • DAEC and toward an answer to other ?s

        Yes, DAEC was renewed for another 20 years beginning in 2014, although there are court challenges in the works. When we consider our energy future, our timeline has to be much longer than one meeting of the Iowa General Assembly. The electric utilities are looking at a 50 year horizon and so should advocates of a sensible energy policy… that is if Mother Nature can wait.

        Regarding MidAmerican Energy, just look at Buffet’s 2010 letter to shareholders. Year over Year profits were off in Iowa, and I believe that is driving the rate increase request. Fehrman has to answer to his superiors, and improve profitability. It couldn’t be the cost of energy, as MidAmerican started buying on the cheap through Exelon’s nuclear plant in Cordova. Again, because it is in a license extension, it is fully depreciated and the cost per kWh is very low at today’s prices.

        Nuclear power is a separate issue, IMHO, about return on equity. In a regulated utility, that return is more or less locked in, which is a reason current law restricts the parent of MidAmerican from getting the full ROI. For people with lots of cash, like Berkshire Hathaway, nuclear power, if HF 561 gets passed, is an attractive, long term investment. The risks that keep companies like Exelon from building new nuclear are borne by Iowa rate payers under the proposed law. The same interest in investing capital would apply to a new coal plant or any large scale facility. Buffet mentioned that aspect of his purchase of the wind farms as a key reason he likes them.

        Georgia may be the first to build a new nuclear plant and has had its CWIP in place for a number of years and is doing advanced cost recovery.

        To say we need tax incentives for small scale wind and solar in Iowa misses the point. Even though growth in electricity demand is decreasing, according to Craig Fricke at CIPCO to about 0.8 percent per year, the current fleet of coal and nuclear power plants, with a few exceptions, are slated to be retired over the next couple of decades.

        How do we replace Neal Smith or the other polluters you list? There is not enough demand from do-it-yourselfers to put up small scale wind and solar to replace that power source. This is why the electric utilities talk about the idea of “baseload.” While I believe baseload is a bad theory, what Iowa needs is an integrated energy policy with some teeth in it. Anyone who believes such a thing will come out of the current legislature should stand on their head.

        The bottom line, a regulated utility is something Berkshire Hathaway, and other investors like them, are interested in because of the potential for consistent, long term return on equity.  

  • Energy Policy

    If you want to know the future of Iowa’s energy policy, look no further than campaign finance reports for legislators and executive branch officials, and see where the big utilities are putting their money.  When the utilities decide what direction they want to go – new coal plants, nukes, etc.  then it’s full speed ahead.

    Based on no inside information, I have a feeling that new coal plants are still a possibility.  The Japanese disaster may have put nuclear on the back burner again.  It takes something colossal to turn the attention of the electorate away from the Kardashians and college football, but the nuke disaster in Japan may have done it, at least in the short term. It gave pause to even the toadiest of Iowa lawmakers….

    Also, as far as air quality goes, the Branstaders targeted the air quality division of the DNR from the git go.  One of those state agencies that hinder economic development in our state, dontcha know….

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