Friday, November 14, 2008


Bad Science, Bad Policies, Bad News

As various inept government agencies bicker and suck the taxpayer’s money up, real citizens are left to make sense of what is dropped into their collective lives.

Case in point: Hills, Iowa. Approximately 8 miles south of Iowa City, the bedroom community of about 800 has no traffic light, is headquarters of the Hills Bank, has two bar / restaurants, a convenience store, a large agribusiness and no municipal water supply. It is as bland, plain and unremarkable a place as any small burg throughout the Midwest. Water had been a controversial issue for many years. The rift between those residents seeking a public water supply and those opposed was longstanding and bitter. The majority of folks seemed content relying on their own, shallow, sand-point wells for their water. Some had invested in deeper, lined wells and were equally content and confident in the safety of their water. Plus: it was free.

In 2003 the EPA, while investigating sites were the federal government stockpiled grain during WWII, they incidentally found perchlorate in the water table beneath Hills. Overnight the residents found themselves beneath the weight of the EPA as they invaded with their plans to investigate the mysterious presence of perchlorate. They were going to probe, dig wells, take samples and, in the process, disrupt and intrude on the lives of the residents as well as the few businesses. One business, in particular, was singled out and was, in fact, a natural suspect.

Stutsman, Inc., a large, family owned feed and fertilizer company occupies approximately 80 acres on Hills southern border. On their property are many warehouses, a large tank farm and several mix plants in which fertilizers are blended, herbicides and other chemicals handled and stored. Stutsman had been on this site for over 60 years and, their facilities and services grew with their success. The EPA subtly implicated Stutsman, Inc. as the likely source of the perchlorate contamination before the first soil probe was taken. The investigation team dispatched out of the EPA Region 7 Office in Kansas City immediately put the onus on Stutsman; they had to shoulder the burden of proof in reverse. Theirs was the task of disproving their culpability in and responsibility for the presence of the water problem.

Over their long, dominant, at times oppressive, history in Hills, Stutsman, Inc. was reviled by many residents for their often ruthless business practices, deep connections with the Hills Bank and a host of other reasons real and imagined. There real growth began in the 19070’s when they became among the first such businesses to adopt the concept of liquid fertilizer rather than the then the conventional utilization of dry fertilizers. As this caught on with local farmers, they grew accordingly adding tanks, mixing / blending facilities and equipment. Many of the Hills residents were convinced that Stutsman operated with impunity, beyond the burgeoning environment, agricultural and regulatory laws governing fertilizers and chemicals. They were known for their belligerence and outright defiance in the face of regulatory agencies as well as the blatant use of an “old boy’s network” with the various state regulatory offices. The majority of the town thought Stutsman HAD to be responsible.

As the residents’ divided into two polarized camps, those blaming Stutsman, those not, the EPA continued their invasion. The most glaring absence related to the EPA’s “investigation” was facts. They could not say with any certainty what ‘acceptable” levels of this chemical said to be used in rocket fuels was. Sure, this unfamiliar chemical was also naturally present in some mined products used as fertilizers at one time. This single fact mistakenly narrowed the EPA’s focus, blinded them to what the facts on the ground were and prolonged their investigations which allowed the resentments among the town folks to thrive.

The EPA investigation revealed the contours of the “plume” of the contaminant in the aquifer. Several “hot spots” were identified, neither of which were on the property of or even within relative proximity to the Stutsman facility. Essentially Stutsman had been exonerated and the EPA was no further along in understanding the source. They had no compunction imposing water use restrictions on homes located above the heart of the plume.

The EPA came, saw and confused. They dumped the entire mess in the laps of the hapless municipal government of Hills. All sorts of remedies, remediation methods and proposals were floated from those more interested in making a quick buck rather than actually providing clean water to the town. Opportunists filled in the void left by the EPA as they scurried back to Kansas City leaving Hills ina cloud of dust and in the dark.

Not too long ago the latest water referendum failed; the town chose to remain without a common supply. Five years after the EPA came to Hills, the residents are as puzzled today as they were on day one. They have watched their property values plumment, some of left for fear their children's health may have been threatened. Older timers wonder about deaths from long ago...what really killed him or her? Could it have been this perchlorate? No one will ever know the answers to the multitude of questions now part of the landscape of Hills, Iowa.

The town of Hills is locally known as the host and presenter of an impressive Fourth of July fireworks show. Oddly, one of the identified hot spots identified by the EPA is directly under the site these fioreworks have been launched from for years. Perchlorate, some traces of it, are presnt in many fireworks. Coincidence? Do decades of fireworks set off by drunken locals explain the aquifer plume?

These are just some of the quetions the EPA has left in it's wake. Folks in Hills can chose individually what the source of their water will be. They can do as they always have, use a bottled product or drill a new, deeper, lined well. They still need and use water.

The damage inflicted on them by the EPA is far greater than the problem that brought them. They were seen as their to help the town ouit of this crisis and left despised by everyone. They said good luck and see ya.

Click on title for permalink to:
EPA Advisers Seek Perchlorate Review
Scientists Hope Agency Rethinks Decision Not to Issue Standard

at the Washington Post Online.

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