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 want to defund the state's air quality bureau 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 University of Iowa Global Health Studies Program.
Last year, McCue published a study, with Physicians for Social Responsibility, 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 National Weather Service. 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.
He inputs data about a fuel source's chemical composition, smokestack heights and the flow rates from his company's coal-burners to predict emissions. He said GPC will "develop a plume, based on the meteorology," and then predict when and where the pollution will spread out and hit the ground.
Wind speed and direction are major factors in determining what fuel is used, and the company can switch between different types of coal to decrease the levels of sulfur released when needed.
Low-sulfur coal can have its own problems, such as higher mercury content than high-sulfur coal, so there is usually a trade-off of less sulfur for more mercury.
But using these computer modeling techniques to determine whether Muscatine meets federal pollution standards is opposed by the man who heads up the department in charge of Iowa's air quality.
Muscatine lawyer Roger Lande, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, is also the former chairman of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), a group that has called for "streamlined" processes for air quality permits to reduce "unnecessary burden on industry."
"I don't think that we need to model Muscatine," Lande said in an interview.
GPC is a client of Lande's law firm. Lande has left the firm because of ties to industry clients.
Link Between Bad Air Episodes and Death Rates?
Exposure to sulfur dioxide and particulates can cause heart disease and have profound effects on breathing airways and lung tissue.
But pinpointing the relation between pollution and sickness can still challenge researchers.
"When people die from, for example, cardiovascular disease, you don't know whether it happened because of a very high episode of air pollution or it happened because of chronic, consistent, high exposure to certain pollutants," explained Dr. Naresh Kumar, a geography professor at the University of Iowa.
In a forthcoming study, Kumar will use ten years of data to make a "time-series analysis of mortality ... with respect to air pollution," by comparing bad air episodes with death rates.
For Muscatine resident Helen Van Hoover, a research study like Kumar's would prove what she already suspects, "It would show that Muscatine has a higher incidence of afflictions ... heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, COPD (chronic pulmonary obstructive disease) and all the lung diseases."
Adopting a patient approach to the situation, she helped organize a group to work toward cleaner air in Muscatine.
They met last week to submit comments to the EPA, and their next meeting will be scheduled in Southend, a residential neighborhood that borders GPC and Muscatine Power and Water coal plants.
Van Hoover said: "It's been a long time to get a group like this together, but I think maybe now we might be able to get somewhere."