Mediocre air and water quality ratings in Iowa tarnish our “green” reputation


Summer is in the air and, unfortunately, that’s not the only thing in the air. A drive up Interstate 380 at certain points of the day will prove that. The air blowing in one direction will produce a fragrance that is unmistakably Captain Crunch. The air blowing another direction will make a person give up hot dogs and other meat products for life.

Iowa air quality consistently receives low ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency, as does its water quality. If our state government wants to flaunt Iowa as a “green state,” it must improve current air and water quality standards.

Gov. Chet Culver has shown he wants to market Iowa as an environmentally friendly haven. He signed a bill establishing the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council in 2007. The council’s job was to prepare a report to assess options already available and provide new solutions to Iowa’s greenhouse problems. It published its report in December 2008, finding the state could gradually reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases by at least 50 percent over the next 40 years.

The two solutions the council saw as the most effective were adopting clean and renewable technologies and cap-and-trade policies. The council’s final report supports replacing power generators fueled by natural gas and coal with wind technology and “biomass” fuels. Instituting a cap-and-trade system would force public and private entities to conserve energy in an economic and market-based way.

Replacing domestic coal and natural-gas power generators will ultimately reduce Iowa’s carbon footprint and clean up the air. Coal plants supply approximately 85 percent of Iowa’s electricity and are a major contributor to Iowa’s air pollution. Replacing them with wind turbines and cleaner burning bio-fuels could significantly reduce the amount of air pollutants Iowans breathe in the long run.

The council also addressed a major contributor to Iowa’s water pollution, the agricultural sector and soil erosion. Soil erosion from flooding and excessive farming has led to drainage into the river system. Solutions the council has proposed to correct that include changes in the drainage system and utilizing marginal farm land to conserve nutrients and prevent them from draining and ultimately poisoning Iowa’s water.

These solutions, for the most part, will go a long way in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and Iowa’s overall carbon footprint. Some of these solutions will have a secondary benefit in cleaning up air and water pollutants.

And that is where the problem lies. The council’s focus is on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and not other air and water pollutants. That may have the secondary benefit of cleaning up air and water pollutants that pose immediate health risks, but Iowa will not receive those benefits for years. Greenhouse gases may cause long-term harm to the environment, but low air and water quality cause immediate harm to the people’s health.

The state’s air and water quality have been low for years. They’ve even come close to violating the EPA’s minimum standards. Iowa has only passed recent evaluations because of substantial help and funding from the federal government.

Lax or nonexistent oversight is the cause for most problems. Iowa’s standard for maintaining air and water quality is self reporting by groups, companies, and individuals. Called the Fire Alarm Method, it provides little and some cases no oversight for the groups reporting, many who are the main polluters. The state of Iowa needs to correct this if it wants to be a green state. No amount of carbon trading or wind turbines can make up for proper vigilance.

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