PCB sources located inside schools


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School buildings built in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that have not been remodeled are most likely to contain high concentrations of PCBs in the air due to dated building materials. (Kevin Jarrett/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 11, 2017

In the largest study of its kind, UI researchers have detected polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in six schools throughout the midwest.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of manmade organic chemicals that were heavily used in construction and industry from 1929 until they were banned in 1979. PCBs are now known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems.

The Iowa Superfund Research Program took indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools from 2012 through 2015. While none of the schools had enough PCBs in the air to surpass the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level, the researchers did make new discoveries about the main sources of PCBs in schools.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, revealed that regardless of the school’s location: rural areas of Columbus Junction, Iowa or heavy industry areas of East Chicago, concentration of PCBs were higher indoors.

Project leader and UI College of Engineering Professor Keri C. Hornbuckle said in an interview with Iowa Now, “This is the first time we’ve been able to pinpoint the source of PCBs inside schools. This study shows that the indoor air is contaminated, and that contamination is due to materials that remain in use in the school buildings.” The study points to florescent light ballasts, calking and oil-based paints as likely sources.

Research has shown that exposure to PCBs during childhood can cause significant neurological deficits, visual impairment and learning difficulties. Schools in the U.S. are not currently required to measure PCBs concentrations but concern is growing.

Dr. Peter Thorne is the principal investigator on the study. He said, “Our nation’s schools must provide a safe and healthy environment for growing and learning. In addition to protecting children from risks such as asthma and obesity, schools need to be free of elevated exposures to persistent pollutants, including lead and PCBs.”

Climate change decreases number of working days for Illinois farmers


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Extreme heat and drought are becoming more common thanks to climate change, both lead to “kernel abortion” in corn plants. (Erick Larson/Mississippi State Extension)
Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2017

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently released a study that predicts the impact climate change will have on agriculture in the state.

The research article, published in PLOS One, centers around one variable called “field working days.” This term refers to the days during which the weather is suitable for farmers to plant, till, monitor, or harvest crops. Adam Davis is a University of Illinois USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist. Davis said, “Everything else flows from field working days. If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?”

Utilizing previously developed climate models, the researchers predicted the number of field working days for farmers in Illinois from 2046 to 2065 and from 2080 to 2099. The study modeled three possible trajectories ranging from mild to severe climate change.

Notably, the study predicts that the usual planting window for corn, April and May, will be too wet for planting in the future. Too much rain can be harmful for seedlings because it can wash them away or lead to harmful fungal and bacterial growth.

Davis said, “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”

While the spring months grow wetter, summer months are predicted to become drier and hotter, especially in the southern parts of Illinois. “Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late-summer under all the climate scenarios. If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought that will hit yield during the anthesis-silking interval, leading to a lot of kernel abortion,” Davis explained.

The article offers two possible adaptations for farmers. They could opt for earlier planting of long-season varieties that should have enough time to pollinate before summer droughts, but they’d risk getting hit by a late winter storm. Or, the researchers suggest, farmers could plant short-season cultivars that are harvested prior to summer droughts. In this case, growers could be sacrificing yield due to the shorter growing season.

Either way, Davis said, farmers should begin considering how they can best adapt to the changing climate. He said, “Now is the time to prepare, because the future is here.”

Iowa to Illinois wind energy project faces setback


Wind turbines on a snowy Iowa field. (Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)
Wind turbines on a snowy Iowa field. (Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)
Nick Fetty | January 13, 2016

A project that would transport wind energy generated in Iowa to Illinois faced a setback this week after the Iowa Utilities Board voted against splitting the case into two separate hearings.

The Iowa Utilities Board on Monday voted 3-0 against a third request by Clean Line Energy Partners – the company behind the $2 billion project – to split the case into two separate hearings. Proponents of the project argue that two separate hearings would give them more time to discuss approval of the project itself as well as the use of eminent domain to complete it while opponents cite that separate hearings would be more burdensome for landowners and others involved.

Cary Kottler – Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Clean Line Energy Partners – told Midwest Energy News earlier this month that the project probably wont happen “if all the right-of-way has to be acquired before the route is approved.”

State law and regulations by the Iowa Utilities Board require that approval of a project as well as approval to use eminent domain must be decided in a single proceeding. Clean Energy Partners has received approval from approximately 15 percent of affected landowners but will not seek approval from additional landowners until it works through the procedural issues.

The proposed Rock Island Clean Line would take energy generated by wind turbines in northwest Iowa and transport it to a converter station outside of Chicago. The company expects the line will provide enough energy to power 1.4 million homes.

Flooding along the Mississippi River continues to move south


A hay bale get swept away by the rising Mississippi River near Commerce, MO on Dec. 31, 2015 (Missouri National Guard/Flickr)
A hay bale gets swept away by the rising Mississippi River near Commerce, Mo. on Dec. 31, 2015 (Missouri National Guard/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | January 5, 2016

Deadly flooding along the Mississippi River surges southward this week as areas of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi are expected to reach moderate to major flood stages.

The river is expected to crest early this week along the Tennessee-Arkansas state line and then along the Arkansas-Mississippi state line later in the week. Parts of the Mississippi River along Louisiana may not crest for another week and half.

Seven million people in 15 states are facing the threat of flooding and so far 29 have lost their lives in Illinois and Missouri.

Missouri governor Jay Nixon issued a federal emergency declaration for his state on Saturday which was approved by President Barack Obama.

“The fast-rising flood water inundated several thousand homes and businesses and left behind a trail of destruction, debris and refuse that will have to be cleaned up quickly so that rebuilding can begin and the region can recover,” Gov. Nixon said in a press release. “I appreciate the debris removal assistance the federal government has agreed to provide, and the speed with which the president responded to our request. Federal assistance with debris removal can help ensure the region moves forward from this historic disaster.”

Though Iowa has not been devastated by flooding, heavy rains in the middle of December likely contributed to high river levels south of the Hawkeye State. Des Moines saw 3.78 inches of rain between December 12 and 14 which shattered the previous December precipitation record of 3.72 inches set in 1931. Last week Iowa governor Terry Branstad deployed roughly 45 Iowa National Guard members to assist with flood efforts in Missouri.

UI study finds that Midwest is experiencing more serious floods


Coralville, Iowa during the Flood of 1993. (Alan Light/Flickr)
Coralville, Iowa during the Flood of 1993. (Alan Light/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 12, 2015

The Midwest has seen a greater number of serious floods in recent decades compared to previous years, according to a report by researchers at the University of Iowa.

“It’s not that big floods are getting bigger, but that we have been experiencing a larger number of big floods,” said Gabriele Villarini, UI assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-author of the study.

The report – which was published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change – examined 774 stream gauges in 14 Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). The researchers concluded that 34 percent of the sensors detected an increase in flooding events between 1962 and 2011. Nine percent of the gauges showed a decrease in flood events during that same time. The region including Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and North Dakota experienced the greatest increase of flood frequency.

The authors wrote: “Most of the flood peaks in the northern part of the [Central United States] tend to occur in the spring and are associated with snow melt, rain falling on frozen ground, and rain-on-snow events.” However, the report “does not attempt to pinpoint precisely how climate change might be directly responsible for these increased flooding events.”

Serious floods have inundated the region in 1993, 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2014 and have caused more than $260 billion in damages between 1980 and 2013.

Funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, the Iowa Flood Center, IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, and the National Science Foundation.

Cool July temps helped farmers now hoping for more rain


Nick Fetty | August 22, 2014
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)

July 2014 ranked as the fifth-coolest July the Hawkeye State as seen in 142 years of record keeping.

These lower than usual temperatures have been beneficial for farmers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects corn production in Iowa to set a record of 2.44 billion bushels, with an average yield of 185 bushels-per-acre. If this per acre number is reached it will beat the previous record of 182 bushels-per-acre set in 2009.

While corn thrives when temperatures are lower than average, it can be detrimental to soy beans. Soy beans require slightly higher temperatures than corn in order for the bean pods to develop. However, the cooler temps have provided a reduction in disease and insect problems for soy bean crops. Soy bean production is also expected to set a record yield of 3.8 billion bushels according to the USDA.

Even though this past June ranked as one of the wettest in the state’s history, a fairly dry July has farmers now hoping for more rain. Despite the lack of rain, it has not hurt water levels on the Mississippi River.

Iowa is expected to retain its spot as the nation’s top corn-producing state. Illinois is right behind Iowa with an expected yield of 2.22 billion bushels followed by Nebraska with 1.51 billion bushels and Minnesota with 1.34 billion.

Iowa City film fest to feature documentary about frac sand mining


Nick Fetty | August 21, 2014
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Caroll Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)

The 8th annual Landlocked Film Festival will take place in downtown Iowa City this weekend and among the films being shown is a documentary that examines the affects that frac sand mining has had on the environment as well as the communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Price of Sand – directed by Minnesota native Jim Tittle – examines the recent boom in mining operations for pure silica. This silica is used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) operations as well as for manufacturing materials such as glass and toothpaste. The silica acts as a proppant or “a material used in hydraulic rock fracturing in order to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction.” The size and shape of different proponents play “a critical role in keeping fractures open and at the desired conductivity.”

These frac sand mining operations are most common along the “driftless area” – also called the Paleozoic Plateau – which “is a unique region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin with a landscape that is rich with ecological and economic opportunities. The area was by-passed by the last continental glacier and has differential weathering and erosion that results in a steep, rugged landscape referred to as karst topography.” The driftless area includes portions of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illiniois, and northeast Iowa. Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa currently have a “moratorium on mining.”

Proponents of the practice say that frac sand mining provides a valuable resource while creating jobs. Opponents say that it brings increased traffic as well as wear and tear on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to rural areas. Opponents are also concerned about the potential health effects associated with frac sand mining.

The viewing will take place at 4 p.m. on Friday August 22 in Room A at the Iowa City Public Library. It will be followed by discussion from a panel of experts from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

“The size and the shape of silica make it a particularly dangerous substance. It is regulated as a human carcinogen. It causes siliceous, it causes tuberculous, it causes problems with kidney disease. According to studies on siliceous we can get a certain amount, maybe up to three micrograms per cubic meter, and we have no ill health effects but above that level, so if we have agricultural dust as well as dust coming from a sand plant, we may be above that threshold and then we may begin to see the scarring and the progression of disease associated with silica exposure.”

-University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Associate Nursing Professor Crispin Pierce during an interview with Iowa Public Radio on August 21, 2014.