Pollution around some eastern Iowa factories is higher than federal goal

Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 8:15 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Around 250,000 Americans face air pollution levels higher than the federal government considers acceptable, according to our national investigative partners at ProPublica and Investigate TV. The two groups analyzed five years of data from the Environment Protection Agency to identify more than 1,000 locations where people may be exposed to a level of excess cancer risk the EPA believes is unacceptable.

According to a report published in May 2021, the EPA “strives to protect the greatest number of people possible” to a maximum individual risk level no higher than approximately one in one million. However, the federal agency sets the limit of acceptable excess cancer risk at 1 in 10,000, which is 100 times more than the EPA’s inspirational goal.

74 Million Americans are being exposed to an excess cancer risk above the EPA’s goal. Those include three different locations in eastern Iowa: Amana, Waterloo, and Cedar Rapids.

Data from ProPublica shows air in an area roughly stretching from McGrath Amphitheater to NewBo in Cedar Rapids has an excess cancer risk of around 1 in 19,000. The data from ProPublica said the Ingredion factory accounts for 97% of that higher cancer risk. A 2014 report said it found emissions from the plant, then known as Penford Products, were increasing cancer risks in the area as early as 2014.

Becca Hary, who is a spokesperson for Ingredion, said in an email the company is committed to protecting the environment and operating safely in every community it does business. She said the company creates less excess risk than the federal limit.

“The EPA has established safe and legal limits for food ingredient manufacturers, and we operate well within these established guidelines,” she wrote

Data from ProPublica shows air in Amana also carries an excess cancer risk of 1 in 26,000, which is 62% lower than the EPA’s acceptable risk. The nonprofit also contribute 99% of the excess cancer risk to Whirlpool, which has a factory nearby.

Chad Parks, who is a spokesperson for Whirlpool Corporation, pushed back against the data in a written statement. He said there’s a difference between factories producing chromium and nickel from scrap stainless steel, like Whirpool, as opposed to chromium or nickel coming from a smokestack.

“At our Amana, Iowa, operations we manufacture stainless steel refrigerators for consumers across the U.S,” Parks wrote. “All stainless steel contains chromium and nickel. We carefully ensure our operations comply with all regulatory requirements, and metal scraps left over from the rolled stainless steel we use to manufacture refrigerators are carefully sent to an authorized facility where the metal can be recycled and reclaimed for beneficial use.”

Parks also points to a disclaimer in the data about errors associated with facilities, who report chromium compounds. ProPublica said those reports might be inaccurate because the EPA’s reporting system doesn’t allow facilities to distinguish between two different chemicals.

Data from ProPublica shows air in Waterloo carries an excess cancer risk of 1 in 2,900, which is 3.4 times the EPA’s acceptable risk. The nonprofit also contributes 99.9% of the excess cancer risk to John Deere, which has a factory nearby.

Jennifer Hartmann, who is a spokeswoman for John Deere, pushed back against the data. She said ProPublica made several assumptions about emissions and associated risks. Hartman also said the report is not a site-specific risk assessment.

“John Deere factories – including all Waterloo factories, adhere to all applicable environmental laws including state and federal requirements and proactively monitor and limit emissions and releases,” she wrote. “Our concern for the environment and the communities in which we operate is an integral part of our operations.”

Other locations in southeast Iowa, like Burlington, had multiple locations over the EPA’s acceptable limit. You can look across the United States using this map.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story wrongly attributed the excess cancer risk in Waterloo’s air to Whirlpool. Data from ProPublica shows John Deere’s factories in Waterloo affect their air quality. This story has been changed to reflect that error.

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