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Investigating the potential air quality impacts of natural gas plant emissions on community health in Beloit, Wisconsin

Beloit, Wisconsin

Featured image for the project, Investigating the potential air quality impacts of natural gas plant emissions on community health in Beloit, Wisconsin

Image by Tom from Pixabay

This project aims to support the City of Beloit community in assessing local air quality within vulnerable communities. With low-cost, PurpleAir monitors loaned from the EPA, we are measuring particulate matter air quality in six locations within Beloit, a city situated southeast of a recently expanded gas-fueled power plant. With sensor host partnerships including local government, community services, schools, and neighborhoods we aim to not only monitor air quality, but also to engage, co- educate, and empower local community members to understand the health risks and to serve as an advocate for providing resources that mitigate poor air quality. We are engaged with an AP Environmental Science class, helping with data acquisition, and hope to engage in local ‘town-hall style’ forums in the future. Finally, we plan to draft any results and share them, to emphasize the need for us to protect the Beloit community residents. 

Description

About the Community

Over the last decade, energy companies in Wisconsin have been shutting down coal power generation plants and replacing a select few with higher-energy generation, combined-natural gas plants. Statewide climate-related goals (Executive Order No. 38) intend to help WI energy companies cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (WI public radio) by transitioning away from coal-burning toward natural gas and renewable energy sources. Although natural gas plants generally reduce carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur and mercury pollutant emissions, they have other reported environmental and health-related consequences (Fouladi Fard et al 2016). For example, burning natural gas for fuel results in elevated release of methane, which some consider to be a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 (Alvarez et al 2012). Additionally, some communities have seen concentration-dependent increases in hospitalizations and daily admissions based on age and proximity to the plant (Di Ciaula et al 2011). Although, in some cases where energy produced did not increase, members of the community saw improvements in long-term asthma outcomes (Casey et al 2020). Nonetheless, experts are calling for deeper considerations into the health and environmental damage in concert with expanded emission control, particularly in cases of plant expansions (Fouladi Fard et al 2016). 

However, the damaging effects of gas-fueled power plants are not felt equally across human populations. In fact, locations chosen for energy production disproportionately impact low-income, elder, and predominantly non-white and indigenous communities (EPA). This is the case for the City of Beloit, Wisconsin, a predominantly non-white community that classifies as low-income, relative to the national averages (EPA EJAScreening Tool). The city of Beloit sits just south of Alliant Energy’s West Riverside Energy Center (WERC), a recently converted coal-to-natural gas power plant. Alliant Energy serves more than 960,000 users in WI and IOWA (WI public radio); one of which, WERC, has increased their energy production threefold to meet the demand of powering an additional 550,000 homes to compensate for coal plants being phased out of service. Although these conversion efforts could stem from current Governor Tony Evers’s Executive Order #38 “Relating to Clean Energy in Wisconsin“ (link), which calls for energy consumed in the state of Wisconsin to be carbon free by 2050, there has been minimal to no effort placed in understanding the disproportionate impacts that some communities, like Beloit, may already be facing.   

With a small investment of time, we were able to use the EPA Clean Air Market’s (link)  data user section, along with embedded data mapping tool, EJSCREEN to compare demographics from communities in close proximity to natural-gas power plants, relative to the national average. The screening and mapping tool aims to highlight places with vulnerable communities or greater environmental burdens. Note, The demographic information is obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) 2014-2018 5-year summary file data, which is based on 2018 census boundaries. Overall, the number of power plants in communities that fall at or above the 80th percentile nationally, appear to be disproportionately located in key demographic communities such as: low-income, people of color, less than high school education, linguistic isolation, individuals under 5 years and above 64 years of age (Fig 1). Specific to the Beloit area, mapping overlays for socioeconomic indicators demonstrate that the surrounding communities are made up predominantly by communities of color and low income individuals, relative to national percentiles (Figure 2). Indeed, most of the shading in Figure 2 (A) indicates that communities within Beloit often fall above the 60-70th percentiles, with some as high as the 80th percentile. Similarly, in part (B) of Figure 2, orange and red shading (90-95 and 95-100th percentile, respectively) indicates that this area is not only one of the poorest in Wisconsin, but also nationally. The need to protect the community members residing in this area is clear, however, little to no work has been done to investigate the effects of the newly converted power plant. Therefore, we aim to investigate potential harmful particulate materials released from the power plant, and draft a “potential impact report” to the WI DNR. Additionally, we aim to engage, co- educate, and empower local community members to understand the health risks and to serve as an advocate for providing resources that may mitigate poor localized air quality.  

About the Project

To date, there has been minimal effort aimed at investigating the extent to which residents from sensitive populations within Beloit are exposed to elevated levels of airborne particulate matter. The proposed project leads are interested in addressing the following questions: 

  1. To what degree do communities within Beloit experience poorer air quality than other surrounding communities of the powerplant? 
  1. To what extent are there observable seasonal patterns and in what way may that worsen or improve air pollution severity within communities? 
  1. How do levels of air  particulates compare to agency quality standards imposed by WI DNR and the EPA? 
  1. What strategies are the community currently employing to mitigate the health and environmental impacts of air pollution?

Resources/Instrumentation:

Air Quality Sensors: We have been approved to borrow 6 PurpleAir PA-II air quality sensors  by the EPA Region 5 Air Sensor Loan Program (link) for 6 months (with a possibility to extend).  

Sensor Hosts: We have located sensor host partners in multiple organizations that are utilized by members of vulnerable communities. Since September, we have installed and/or registered purple air sensors at the following locations: 

Installation with the AP Environmental Science class from Beloit Memorial High School. Photo by Alisha Saley.

 

  1. Beloit Memorial High School – Partnering with an AP Environmental Science instructor (Heidi Andre), we visited the class and engaged the students to participate in the ‘scientific process’. We went over relevant background and reasons why we should monitor our air quality prior to having the students install the sensor ‘in the field’. They are using the collected data as part of their semester unit on fossil-fuel burning and air quality.
  2. Family Services Center of Southern Wisconsin – Family Services supports members of the community through counseling, education, advocacy and case management. Their goal is to support individuals moving forward, whether that is through healing and repair or encouraging and mentorship.
  3. Merrill Community Center – Community Action Inc. serves the communities of Rock and Walworth counties in WI, providing access and opportunities to ‘pathways out of poverty’ and economic self-reliance. Through programming and community partnerships, they engage with all ages of the community using a “ladder up, not a hand out” mentality. 

    Community Lead, Brittany (L) meets with Angelina Reyes (R) from Merrill Community Center to install a sensor. Photo by Alisha Saley.

  4. Department of Public Works (City of Beloit, WI) – Connecting with the city to have a sensor installed was a great way to form a line of communication between our group and local government agents.  
  5. Neighborhood of community partner – Awaiting a potential home with another school, our final sensor is currently collecting data in a neighborhood that consists of young and elderly members of the community.
  6. Turner High School – Sensor awaiting installation

If you are interested in checking out the data that is being collected so far, you can find it live at: Real-Time Air Quality Map, Beloit WI 

Timelines and Milestones: 

  • Science expert partner match: Fall 2022 
  • Sensor Loan begins, data collection ensues, Fall 2022 (6 months)
  • Sensor Return (or potential extension), Spring 2023 
  • Data processing and analysis, Spring 2023 
  • Report Drafted, Spring–Summer 2023 
  • Discussions and engagement with Beloit community via “Courageous Conversations” town hall forum, Ongoing 

References

 

  1. Alvarez, Ramón A., et al. “Greater Focus Needed on Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Infrastructure.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 17, 2012, pp. 6435–6440., https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1202407109.  
  1. Casey, Joan A., et al. “Improved Asthma Outcomes Observed in the Vicinity of Coal Power Plant Retirement, Retrofit and Conversion to Natural Gas.” Nature Energy, vol. 5, no. 5, 2020, pp.  398–408., https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-0600-2.  
  1. Di Ciaula, Agostino. “Emergency Visits and Hospital Admissions in Aged People Living Close to a Gas-Fired Power Plant.” European Journal of Internal Medicine, vol. 23, no. 2, 2012,  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejim.2011.09.013.  
  1. Executive Order. No. Wisconsin Executive Order #38: “Relating to Clean Energy in Wisconsin”, 2019.
  2. Fouladi Fard, Reza, et al. “The Assessment of Health Impacts and External Costs of Natural Gas-Fired Power Plant of Qom.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 23, no. 20, 2016, pp.  20922–20936., https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-016-7258-0.  
  1. “Power Plants and Neighboring Communities.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 12 May 2022, https://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/power-plants-and-neighboring-communities#graphing.  
  1. “Utility Closes Coal Facility Amid Transition To Natural Gas.” Wisconsin Public Radio, 1 Oct. 2018, https://www.wpr.org/utility-closes-coal-facility-amid-transition-natural-gas. Accessed 26 July 2022. 

Project Team

Community Leads

Dr. Brittany Keyes, Local Politician, Former Beloit City Council Vice President 

Dr. Brittany Keyes is a physical therapist who lives in Beloit, WI with her husband and two young children. She recently served as the Vice President of Beloit’s City Council where she became aware of the impacts of pollution on the more vulnerable members of her community. She is dedicated to service, volunteering on the board for the Rotary Club of Beloit and the board for Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action. 

 

Dr. Pablo Toral, Professor of Environmental Studies and International Relations, conducts research on sustainable development, with a focus on community-level environmental activism. 

Pablo lives in Beloit, where he has been an advocate for initiatives that promote sustainability. He works with several community organizations and currently serves in the City of Beloit’s Plan Commission. 

Abby Novinska-Lois headshot

Abby Novinska-Lois, Executive Director of Wisconsin Professionals for Climate Action  

Abby received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science (cert. in Environmental Studies) from the UW- Madison and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Health. She has worked across various scales of climate and environmental justice and currently splits her time  between the Global Health Institute and the Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action (WHPCA), where she is the executive director. After some local health professionals alerted WHPCA to potential air quality issues in Beloit, she reached out to Thriving Earth Exchange and submitted a project for the April 2022 cohort.  

Community Scientist

We are partnering with the Air Monitoring team at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to aid in data calibration along with an outside air quality scientist (finalizing) for results interpretation and dissemination products. 

Community Science Fellow

Alisha Saley Headshot

Alisha Saley, PhD Candidate in the Ecology Graduate Group, UC- Davis 

Alisha (she|her) is a marine ecology PhD candidate at the University of California-Davis (Bodega Marine Laboratory). From Wisconsin, she received her undergraduate education from the UW- La Crosse.  She is broadly interested in how co-learning and capacity building strategies can strengthen the impact of research effort. Joining the team as a project manager allows her to continue to move science beyond the walls of academia, outside of her field of study.