Despite Warnings From Inspector, One Iowa Town Still Battles Toxic Air

Nov 30, 2011
Originally published on November 30, 2011 11:35 am

Our investigative reporting colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) continue our joint Poisoned Places series with yet another story about "a regulatory system that has failed...for years" to control toxic air pollution.

This time, CPI reports, the polluter is one of the nation's biggest emitters of acetaldehyde — a probable carcinogen — and Iowa's largest emitter of lead last year.

CPI's Chris Hamby focuses on the Grain Processing Corp. (GPC) plant in Muscatine, Iowa, which transforms corn into ethanol, corn sweeteners and beverage alcohol. Hamby gathered thousands of emails, memos and reports, which document years of tepid state and federal regulation despite constant warnings from a state inspector that "GPC's apparent compliance with air pollution laws was a facade..."

In 2009, Kurt Levetzow, a senior inspector with Iowa's Department of Natural Resources, sent an email to an agency lawyer citing an obvious blue haze generated by the plant and drifting over Muscatine neighborhoods.

"It seems obvious to me...that they've been out of compliance for a long time," Levetzow wrote.

Hamby also reports that the blue haze "can indicate the presence of compounds such as acetaldehyde," which is one of the toxic byproducts of corn processing.

GPC insists it follows air pollution rules, stays within air pollution limits and is upgrading its air pollution equipment.

GPC spokeswoman Janet Sichterman told Hamby, "We want this to be a great community with quality air, too."

But some of the people downwind of the plant in Muscatine are not convinced.

"I moved here when I was 15," said Sherry Leonard, 57, who appears in a video that accompanies the CPI story. "Things have gotten much worse. It used to be almost tolerable. But it's not tolerable anymore."

Hamby reports that state officials allowed GPC to avoid improvements that would reduce pollution. And the company admits to burning low sulfur coal when winds sent emissions toward an air monitor designed to detect sulfur dioxide, a tightly regulated pollutant.

"When Levetzow inspected the plant," Hamby reports, "he found two piles of coal. One was high in sulfur — a type that releases more sulfur dioxide, the pollutant measured by the monitor. The other, lower in sulfur, was used only sporadically."

GPC called the practice "perfectly legal" and denied it was trying to "get out of regulation."

It took Iowa regulators more than a decade to discover violations of some pollution limits. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to ensure Iowa's enforcement of federal air pollution regulations. "After years on the sidelines," Hamby writes, the EPA "says it is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation of GPC..."

"If we don't have them be accountable for what they're doing to us, they're just going to keep right on doing it," Leonard told Hamby. "I feel they should clean it up or shut it down because there's a lot of people sick in Muscatine, and it's not fair."

Additional reporting from this series — including an interactive map that lets you explore facilities that are emitting toxic chemicals in your town — is available on NPR's Poisoned Places page.

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