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An Iowa town with the worst air quality in the state is again under scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after years of bumping up against federal air pollution limits.
Last month, the EPA declared Iowa's pollution-fighting plans "substantially inadequate" for maintaining fine particulate matter standards in Muscatine, an industrial town of 22,700 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 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.
Results from air modeling software could be submitted to the EPA, but some state officials are resistant to the idea.
On top of it all, some legislators want to cut funding of the state's air quality bureau to help close a budget shortfall.
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 hot spot 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 feedlots as contributors to the poor air.
Air monitors in Muscatine clocked 14 days with unsafe sulfur dioxide levels between Aug. 27 and Dec. 31 last year, and also registered 19 episodes that exceeded federal standards for small particulate matter, more than any other Iowa city for 2010.
Modeling a community
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 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 enters data about a fuel source's chemical composition, smokestack heights and the flow rates from coal-burners into the modeling program in order 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 burned, and the company can switch between different types of coal to decrease the levels of sulfur released.
Low-sulfur coal can have its own problems -- such as higher mercury content than high-sulfur coal -- so there is usually a trade-off.
But using these computer modeling techniques to determine whether Muscatine meets federal pollution standards is opposed by the man who heads the state agency in charge of Iowa's air quality.
Muscatine lawyer Roger Lande, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, also is 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 its ties to industry clients.
Out of thin air
Exposure to sulfur dioxide and particulates can cause heart disease and have profound effects on breathing airways and lung tissue.
But pinpointing the relationship 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, whose Iowa City campus is 35 miles from Muscatine.
In a forthcoming study, Kumar will use 10 years of data to make a "time-series analysis of mortality ... with respect to air pollution," by comparing bad air episodes with death rates.
Jennifer Bower has already made up her mind about Muscatine's air. "It stinks," she said, adding that she can smell it miles outside of town.
Since moving from Des Moines to Muscatine, Bower has suffered from asthma for more than a decade. She's convinced polluted air caused her condition. Bower's 5-year-old daughter, Kate, has visited the emergency room twice for asthma attacks.
Bower 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.
B. Adam Burke is an independent producer in eastern Iowa and former writer for the Iowa Independent, an online news network.