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Poor Data Hampers EPA Coal Cleanup in Iowa's Most Polluted Town

Despite new, stricter pollution rules by EPA, the coal industry in Muscatine may get a pass from the agency until new data or models are produced

By B. Adam Burke,

Mar 31, 2011
Muscatine Coal Plant

An Iowa town with the worst air quality in the state is again under EPA scrutiny after years of maintaining allowable air pollution levels.

But plans to clean up emissions from burning coal won't be adopted for several years, leaving residents in a haze of regulation and red tape.

Last month, the EPA declared Iowa's pollution-fighting plans "substantially inadequate" for maintaining fine particulate matter standards in Muscatine, an industrial town on the Mississippi River.

The state has 18 months to craft new plans for EPA approval, and then local industry will have another two years to install equipment or decrease production and reduce emissions. Not meeting pollution standards can lead to withheld federal funding and, eventually, a federal implementation plan that comes directly from the EPA instead of the state.

The EPA's action comes just a few months after the agency voided almost two years of Muscatine's sulfur dioxide (SO2) monitor data due to faulty equipment, which may postpone a ruling on the status for those emissions standards. The agency requires three years of data to determine whether standards are being met.

On top of it all, some legislators to help close budget shortfalls.

Results from air modeling software could be submitted to the EPA to prove a violation (also called "non-attainment") of air quality standards, but some state officials are resistant to the idea.

So despite new, stricter SO2 measures that could reveal violations of the Clean Air Act, Muscatine may get a pass from the EPA until new data or models are produced.

Muscatine Is 'Hotspot' for Pollution Sickness

Jennifer Bower has already made up her mind about Muscatine's air. "It stinks," she said, adding she can smell it miles outside of town.

Bower has suffered from asthma for over a decade after moving from Des Moines to Muscatine. She's convinced the polluted air caused her breathing condition, which she said began after just a year of living in the coal-dependent town of 22,700.

She believes that "the safest place" is inside her home, because she can control indoor air quality. Like many in Muscatine, her family uses air purifiers year-round and humidifiers in the winter.

Bower's five-year-old daughter, Kate, has visited the emergency room twice to treat her asthma attacks.

Linda Smith, who's lived in Muscatine all her life, said her doctor has diagnosed her and others with an unclassifiable, upper-respiratory sickness nicknamed the "Muscatine Crud."

"Muscatine is a hotspot for air pollution-related illnesses relative to the rest of Iowa," said Dr. Maureen McCue, a physician from a neighboring county and founding member of the .

Last year, McCue published a study, with , on the health effects of Iowa's coal dependence that stated "substantial scientific evidence demonstrates health and environmental harms at every stage of coal’s life cycle, from the coal mine to the coal ash."

The Iowa study also implicated industrial agriculture processes and animal feed lots as contributors to the state’s poor air.

Air monitors in Muscatine clocked 14 days with unsafe SO2 levels between Aug. 27 and Dec. 31 last year, and also registered 19 episodes which exceeded federal standards for smaller particulate matter, more than any other Iowa city for 2010.

Where are the Computer Air Models?

Computer air modeling is similar to weather-forecasting, and much of the software relies on information from the . Programmers add facility-specific inputs like fuel type and emission rates to show levels of pollution in geographic areas. The software is subjected to rigorous scientific testing in order to receive federal approval.

Air models are often used by industry to help keep emissions within allowable levels.

Mick Durham is the environmental manager at GPC, one of the top polluters in the area, along with Monsanto and MPW.

DNR Air Quality Bureau's Ability

Muscatine experienced a "poor air quality" day on March 22, according to the State Hygienic Lab's Historical Air Quality site. The DNR didn't send out an air quality alert in response, and I've heard that this is because they just don't have the staff time and resources. House File 660 (fee cap on Title V emissions charged to Iowa emitters) hasn't even passed, so what will happen if it does become law? The public deserves to know when there is poor air, for personal adjustments if nothing else. The DNR's Air Bureau needs to maintain its current level of activities and services, at a minimum.

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