Iowa should tighten air quality regulations


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Even if you can't see or taste it, that doesn't mean it's not there: mercury, methane, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), and myriad other chemicals and dangerous compounds are floating along Iowa wind currents at any given time. Thanks to pollution from power plants, the state has been awarded a spot in the list of the most "Toxic 20."

Recently ranked at No. 20 on the list — compiled by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council from 2009 toxicity reports by the Environmental Protection Agency — Iowa's injurious air quality makes it hard to "breathe easily" when considering the detrimental effects pollution has had on our state. The Iowa Legislature should take these rankings seriously and seek to address our state's emissions problem.

"Power plants are the biggest industrial toxic air polluters in our country, putting children and families at risk by dumping deadly and dangerous poisons into the air we breathe," Climate Center Director Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. The council found that almost half of all air pollution in the United States is directly attributed to oil- and coal-burning power plants.

Iowa alone plays host to more than 170 power plants, including two in Johnson County. But Iowa is unique from most "Toxic 20" contenders (even the five other Midwestern states) in that we have a large and thriving agricultural industry in addition to our electrical generators. Iowa's agricultural industry contributes to the prevalence of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in our air, adding to the cocktail of pollutants.

But the purpose behind the release of the July 2011 list was not to scare people. Rather, it serves to highlight an ongoing issue for all states. The EPA has worked for years to perfect and "propose air toxic standards for coal- and oil-fired electric generating units by March 16, 2011, and finalize a rule by Nov. 16, 2011," according to the agency's website.

(The EPA has estimated that its proposed regulatory guidelines, if passed in November, would prevent as many as 12,000 hospital visits every year and roughly 17,000 fatalities.)

"The important thing to note is that the Natural Resources Defense Council report is not a ranking of air toxics from all industrial sources, it was a ranking of the toxic emissions from just that sector — the power-generating sector," said Jason Marcel, the supervisor of the Emissions Inventory Unit of the Air Quality Bureau in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He said states more reliant on alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, would have ranked lower on the list of power-generating air polluters.

Marcel further noted that the National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (also compiled by the EPA) is a comprehensive, nationwide measurement of 187 air-polluting toxins that better shows the cumulative effects of all outdoor industrial sectors affecting air quality. Iowa ranks very low in this list in prevalence of both cancer and respiratory hazards, but the pollution from power plants is still concerning.

The report just released from the council shows that 13 states have regulatory policies in place equally as stringent as the EPA's proposed "utility air toxics rule," five states have a policy less stringent, and 32 states — including Iowa — have none at all.

A short-lived bill that would have imposed "certain fees for activities regulated under the Federal Clean Air Act," HF 402, was withdrawn during the last state legislative session; this is unfortunate because it would have directly implicated those responsible for pumping excessive pollutants into the air. (A similar bill, HF 660, was sent to subcommittee before the end of the session.) However, HF 561, a bill that promotes the creation of nuclear-power facilities to replace oil- and coal-burning ones, passed the state House in April, and it would allow for noticeably cleaner energy output — although nuclear power has its own set of drawbacks.

No matter the source, the detrimental effects of pollutants on our air quality cannot be denied. Acid rain caused by mercury particles, higher rates of childhood asthma due to nickel, cadmium acting as a possible carcinogen, and assorted other metals responsible for everything from developmental disorders to "premature mortality" — all of this because we refuse to strengthen regulations on industrial air pollution.

As heat waves sweep across the state and effectively amplify air pollutants, now is as good a time as ever to take a closer look at what we're pumping into our wide summer skies. The health of Iowans and our environment is at stake the longer people allow arsenic compounds, mercury, and hydrochloric acid to infiltrate the air they breathe.

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