The Grain Processing Corp. plant in Muscatine, Iowa. Chris Hamby/iWatch News
Reading Time: 14 minutes

MUSCATINE, Iowa — One spring day in 2010, the haze hanging over this Mississippi River town was worse than usual. It billowed from the smokestacks of a corn processing plant and blanketed the neighborhood across the street. It enshrouded homes and, seen from a certain angle, looked almost blue.

Kurt Levetzow watched from his car. An inspector with the state agency that enforces air pollution laws, he’d been fielding more and more citizen complaints lately about Grain Processing Corp., known as GPC.

The company’s plant sits on the edge of the town’s South End neighborhood, where black soot and bits of corn collect on cars and homes and many residents worry about what they’re breathing. Even on an ordinary day, a pungent burnt-corn odor hangs in the air, and the haze can be seen from miles away.

But Levetzow hadn’t seen anything like this. Driving through the neighborhood near the plant, he snapped pictures and took notes for the memo he would write. “I went through Muscatine on 3-26-10,” he wrote. “I was amazed at what I saw.”

Kurt Levetzow, a senior inspector with the Iowa agency that enforces air pollution rules. Courtesy of Kurt Levetzow

A pickup truck came to a stop next to Levetzow’s car. It was a company security guard.

“Is there a problem?” the guard asked.

“Yes, there is,” Levetzow answered. “GPC is fogging that residential area with a blue haze.” Levetzow pointed. “You see what I mean?”

The guard looked over. “Ah, they’re getting used to that,” he said, chuckling.

Many communities have had little choice but to get used to it. As the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has reported, hundreds of communities are beset with chronic air pollution involving toxic chemicals Congress intended to rein in years ago. Here in the heart of the Corn Belt, people endure the consequences of a regulatory system that has failed them for years.

The plant’s troubles are well-known to state and federal officials, but fixes — when they have come at all — have been slow. Memos, reports and thousands of emails obtained by iWatch News detail Levetzow’s efforts, the company’s resistance and the state environmental agency’s passivity. They also highlight gaps in a regulatory system that relies on a self-reporting honor system, spotty monitoring and ambiguous rules.

Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources, known as the DNR, have allowed GPC to avoid improvements that would reduce pollution. Even when Levetzow told his bosses he thought GPC’s apparent compliance with air pollution laws was a façade and repeatedly urged them to act, they did little, emails show.

The company says it stays within the limits outlined in its permit, has followed air pollution rules and is upgrading pollution control equipment as part of a major plant improvement project, some of which is scheduled to be finished in 2014. The improvements — some required by a court order resolving a case brought by the state for environmental violations five years ago — still may fail to keep the area in compliance with air quality standards, the state says.

GPC spokesperson Janet Sichterman said other companies share responsibility for Muscatine’s air quality problems, and GPC is doing its part to clean up the skies. “We want this to be a great community with quality air, too,” she said.

While the Clean Air Act delegated enforcement duties to the states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency keeps tabs on state agencies and sometimes steps in. The plant appeared on the September version of EPA’s internal “watch list,” which includes serious or chronic violators of the Clean Air Act that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. GPC was not on the list in October.

Now, after years on the sidelines, the EPA has started to get involved. The agency says it is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation of GPC — a rare step the EPA usually reserves for companies it feels have knowingly violated the law. In December 2009, a team of investigators led by the EPA raided the plant and seized documents. Sichterman said the company doesn’t know why it’s being investigated but is confident the probe will determine GPC followed all laws.

Some residents, no longer content to wait for official action, are organizing and building their own case. They are filing complaints and documenting health problems. Recently, they hired a lawyer. As in other communities, they face significant hurdles, from limited air monitoring and health studies that would help them make their case to wariness among their neighbors about taking on powerful political and economic forces.

Even if the investigation and the company’s planned improvements bring change, some residents worry cleaner air may come too late. “Every day it seems like it’s getting worse,” said Wanda Mansaray, who grew up in the South End and said she wears a mask when working in her yard. “How long’s it going to take before they say, ‘We’ve found something irreversible in your lungs we can’t fix’? ”

‘Perfectly legal’

Muscatine-based GPC, a privately owned company with the motto “where innovation comes naturally,” has more than six decades of history in the town known as the “Pearl of the Mississippi.” Each day, the plant transforms the area’s staple crop into beverage alcohol, ethanol and the syrups and starches that make sports drinks sweet and granola bars chewy.

But those living in the plant’s shadow, particularly in the working-class South End neighborhood, worry about its other products: the gases and small particles shooting from its stacks.

Last year, the plant released more lead — a toxic metal that can damage the nervous system — than any plant in the state, according to DNR data. It emitted more acetaldehyde — a probable carcinogen chemically similar to formaldehyde — than almost any plant in the country, EPA data show. Blue haze can indicate the presence of compounds such as acetaldehyde.

State officials began a study of toxic emissions from the plant last year after discovering that GPC appeared to have underreported in submissions to the EPA, said Catharine Fitzsimmons, head of the department’s air quality bureau. But the study is suspended, Fitzsimmons said, so DNR can focus on a higher priority: reducing emissions of fine particles in Muscatine to avoid a designation by the EPA – nonattainment of a Clean Air Act standard – that could jeopardize the area’s economic future.

Near the plant, siding is speckled, and satellite dishes once white have turned almost black. Residents say they can wash a car one day, then write their name in the black soot on it the next. There has been no health study, but many people complain of health problems — from breathing troubles to cancer. In recent years, the county has had one of the state’s highest cancer mortality rates.

Levetzow, 36, one of Iowa’s more senior inspectors, oversees the largest emitters across southeastern Iowa. To him, it’s long been clear that GPC has spewed more pollution than allowed. “It seems obvious to me … that they’ve been out of compliance for a long time,” he wrote in a 2009 email to a DNR lawyer. Gathering the evidence — and getting his bosses to act — has been the challenge, emails between him and DNR officials show.

Levetzow’s starting point was what he viewed as a fundamental disconnect: GPC said it was complying with the limits set in its permit, but the obvious haze indicated otherwise. That led to a question he couldn’t yet answer: If GPC had been failing to comply with pollution limits, why had none of the checks set up by the state — monitors, mandatory self-reporting, periodic testing — detected it?

A key development came in October 2008. Union workers who had been locked out by GPC came to DNR, alleging the company used environmental practices that ranged from sketchy to illegal.

Among their allegations: GPC switched between types of coal to fool an air monitor. When Levetzow inspected the plant, 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 does not dispute switching types of coal when the wind was blowing toward the monitor but says it acted to protect public health by keeping sulfur dioxide emissions in check.

Switching between coal sources is “perfectly legal,” GPC’s environmental director, Mick Durham, said in an interview with iWatch News. “People assumed that something was being hidden or we were trying to get out of regulation, but that’s not the case at all.”

The company stopped the practice in the winter of 2009, company spokesperson Sichterman said, because it could be misinterpreted as an attempt to trick regulators. Now it burns only the high-sulfur coal, she said. “You’ve heard the term, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ They were doing it as a good deed,” she said.

The EPA may take a dimmer view of the practice, said Fred Burnside, who left the agency last year after serving as head of criminal enforcement and now advises companies and law firms. “That would be a very high-priority case because they’re basically altering the monitor,” said Burnside, who wasn’t directly involved in the case while at the EPA.

While investigating the coal switching, Levetzow found another cause for concern. GPC, it appeared, hadn’t reported a number of instances when pollution exceeded allowed limits. These episodes are generally considered violations of air pollution rules, but in Iowa — as in many states — companies can avoid notifying regulators of the excess emissions under a narrow set of circumstances – for example, when cleaning pollution control equipment.

GPC seemed to clean its pollution control equipment often, state records show. Each quarter, the company submitted a lengthy report of excess emissions, including some it had decided were allowed, citing this exemption. The more Levetzow pressed GPC, the more concerned he became that the company was misusing the exemptions to conceal frequent violations of its permit limits. Officials in the air quality bureau’s main office later told him they agreed that GPC was sometimes claiming exemptions where they didn’t apply, an email from the agency’s top compliance officer shows.

If the company had reported all its excess pollution episodes, regulators might have been able to force improvements. Instead, it looked like GPC was doing what it was supposed to do.

Sichterman said the company has changed its operations and better trained its employees, eliminating the practices that caused some excess emissions. It stopped claiming some exemptions a couple of years ago, she said.