Archive for the ‘Malewitz, Jim’ Category

How to make Iowa greener: New Ecological Technologies surface in and near the Hawkeye State

Lou Licht shows off a few of the pollution-zapping poplars that grow on the few acres of land in North Liberty that he calls home. - Photo by Jim Malewitz


Dirty air, polluted waters, tainted land and flooded land. Iowa faces a myriad of environmental problems.

Thanks largely to the state’s central role in the nation’s agriculture, Iowa is widely known as the most human-altered state in the country. And it faces consequences.

Articles in this series examine some of those issues and how new technology might solve them.


Bridging outer space and soil, an ISU professor finds his calling

Brian Hornbuckle, an Iowa State University professor, is trying to improve crop yields and predict flooding by measuring soil moisture – from space.

With poplar trees, a one-time Lowden farmhand makes some green

Lou Licht, a Lowden-born engineer and entrepreneur, uses poplar trees to suck up and zap pollutants in soil, air and water.


Once permitted, green technology could cut costs for wastewater upgrades

More than 700 Iowa communities need sewer upgrades that would cost millions of dollars. Rsearchers like Lou Licht, Gene Parkin and Craig Just think they can help – if permitted.

Despite high emotions, Hyperion tar sands refinery far from realized in South Dakota

Some say that a proposed 400,000 barrel-a-day tar sands oil refinery near the Iowa-South Dakota border will employ the greenest technology. But researchers don’t know they details. The controversial plant may never be built after all as its builder slogs through the permitting process.


Once permitted, green technology could cut costs for wastewater upgrades

Lou Licht wants a permit to use his earth-cleaning poplars in Iowa. But the state DNR wants more data first. - Photo by Jim Malewitz

Green methods could help solve wastewater problems in small Iowa towns.


Iowa has more than 700 unsewered communities that discharge 1.2 billion gallons of poorly treated sewage in to the state’s waters, according to two separate studies by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cited in a 2005 Iowa Policy Project report. And upgrading those systems to meet new federal standards would cost millions of dollars.

But help may be on the way for those cash-strapped towns, according to Iowa researchers, if the state allows them to give it.

Lou Licht, a native of Lowden and owner of the North Liberty-based firm Ecolotree, has developed a method to filter wastewater using poplar trees that he touts as a cleaner, cheaper form of wastewater treatment. And University of Iowa professors Gene Parkin and Craig Just are researching a hybrid natural and mechanical method of water treatment on a micro wetlands site set up on the grounds of a water treatment plant in south Iowa City.

Licht’s technology takes up more land, but burns less energy than its hybrid counterpart, said Parkin.

Another key difference: while Parkin will test his method for two or three years before towns will use it, Licht said his research is “good to go.”

“And when it’s good to go, what’s the deal?” he asked while sitting on the deck of his North Liberty home.

DNR reluctance

While Licht has been permitted to complete wastewater projects in handfuls of states, Iowa is not one of them.

Satya Chenuptai, who heads the wastewater section of the state’s Department of Natural Resources said the department can’t permit work like Licht’s without seeing data showing that it works in Iowa’s unique set of environmental conditions – frozen ground in the winter and waste that is filled with ammonia.

Anne Alexander, a post-doc in environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, who interned with Ecolotree, said Licht’s system should treat ammonia and work in winter as soil temperature a few feet below ground stays near 54 degrees year round.

The system treats less water in winter as poplars stop slurping and transpiring, but microbes continue to work below surface, she said.

“It doesn’t need to be taken up into the tree for the system to function.”

But Richard Leopold, director of Iowa’s DNR until last August, said in an email he can understand Chenuptai’s reservations.

“The department can’t take risks on unproven technology,” he said, though not specifically addressing Licht’s research.

“I am all for “alternative” treatment technologies, and worked hard [at] the Iowa DNR to streamline permitting of such processes. The DNR can’t be in a place that they permit a treatment, and it doesn’t work.”

Parkin agreed more “hard, robust data” is important, but said, “we’re pretty confident Lou’s system and this mini-wetlands system will work.”

Licht said his projects in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states with Iowa-like conditions speak for themselves and that phyto “works across state and national boundaries.”

Alexander said the DNR’s low budget likely stokes its fear of risk.

Chenuptai would agree. He said that budget cuts have taken a toll at the DNR. Until recently, the department employed someone employed someone who devoted all hi time to researching innovation in wastewater treatment, he said.

Just recently, the state cut the position.

This article is part of a series about ecological innovation in Iowa. Read more:

With poplar trees, a one-time Lowden farmhand makes some green

Lou Licht shows off a few of the pollution-zapping poplars that grow on his North Liberty land. - Photo by Jim Malewitz

No longer a polluter, Lou Licht aims to clean up Iowa using poplar trees.


NORTH LIBERTY – Lou Licht was once a polluter – aiding and abetting companies that spewed toxins into the air and water.

Today he could hardly be greener.

With a quick-growing, toxic-zapping tree and a patented technique, Licht cleans up the types of messes he once helped create, and he hopes to apply his work in Iowa.

“Who knew? I mean, it fell out of the sky,” Licht says, leaning back in his deck chair, coffee in hand, as the sun peaks through the thick forest of spindling trees in his yeard that shield much of his lake from view.

Topped with thin patches of still green leaves, those trees dot the landscape of the few acres in North Liberty, Iowa that Licht calls home. Green-brown, expansive and accented with birds chirping on this chilly morning in October, it’s the type of place you might expect someone who studies trees to live.

A crop of Licht's poplar trees. - photo by Jim Malewitz

Trees are Licht’s livelihood. He plants thousands each year in places like Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, and gets thousands of dollars to do it.

But Licht isn’t the type of in-your-face ecologist that lambastes mankind for its rape of Mother Earth. He’s a businessman who speaks of incentives and convergence. Off the top of his head, Licht could break down his revenue in dollars per tree he plants.

But why would the Air Force, or companies like Tyco or Republic Waste – the second largest disposer of garbage nationally – want Licht’s trees? Why do scientists from Australia or Italy seek advice from the guy who graduated from high school in a class of just 17 and nearly enrolled in flight attendant school (“Even wrote the check. We called it back,” he says.).

Because they save money. Lot’s of it. They help clean polluted land, air and water, and they can reduce runoff from heavy rains that cause flooding in a river-filled state like Iowa. And they treat sewage.

“In the case of Iowa, where we are surrounded by farmland, the right 15-20 acres can do all the tertiary treatment for a town of 1,000 people,” says Licht, dressed in the gray pants, a beige long-sleeved button down shirt and a black zip-up vest that a farmer might wear when he’s not tilling his field. 

The rest of Licht could help him pass for a farmer too – his round face and broad nose framed by thin-rimmed glasses, a white-gray head of hair and a body that shows signs of a slowing metabolism but an active lifestyle.

Licht’s work is “awesome,” says Kenneth Yongabi, coordinator of Phytobiotechnology Research Foundation in Cameroon. “I have no doubt about the formidable treasure this technology has for the future.”

The trees work through a process called phytoremediation that involves tree roots, swales and surrounding microbes, and they save companies money, lot’s of it, he and his environmental colleagues say.

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Despite high emotions, Hyperion tar sands refinery far from realized in South Dakota

Elk Point Sign

Tiny Elk Point, SD is the site of a cross-state dispute over an oil refinery that may not be built for years, if at all. (Photo courtesy of The City of Elk Point, SD.)

A controversial tar sands oil refinery near Iowa border may never be built after all.


Elk Point was never in the spotlight before. But for three years, this quiet South Dakota town of just 750 families and a handful of restaurants has become the focal point in a dispute over a proposed 400,000 barrel-a-day tar sands oil refinery. It would be the first built the United States since 1976.

Proposed by Dallas-based Hyperion LLC, the refinery has spurred an ideological clash between those hoping to add jobs to a still stagnant economy and those concerned about the health of the near pristine environment of this town, just 15 miles Southwest of Sioux City, and its nearby national parks and recreation areas.

Tar sands is an extra dark, heavy oil that researchers like Scott Spak, at the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, call “absolutely filthy.”

Hyperion has said the refinery will use new technology that will limit emissions.

Disagreements over the proposal haven’t been confined to Elk Point or surrounding Union County, where 58 percent of voters approved a zoning ordinance that set aside 3,292 acres of land for the Hyperion refinery. Bickering over the refinery has crept across the border into Iowa and into the rhetoric of lawmakers, and was heightened by the recent midterm elections.

But a review of documents on Hyperion’s permitting process show that the refinery likely won’t be built for years, if at all. Since announcing Elk Point as a finalist for the refinery in June 2007, Hyperion has received just one of seven major permits required for its operation, and even that permit is tenuous.

“I see this as a long, drawn-out process,” said Richard Leopold, former director of the Iowa Department of natural resources, who left in August for a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.

South Dakota issue creeps into Iowa

In July 2010, Leopold sent a letter to the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Environmental Projection agency requesting that the state force Hyperion to submit an Environmental Impact Statement, which would detail the refinery’s future effects on air and water quality and native species of South Dakota and Iowa.

Richard Leopold

Richard Leopold

That letter brought the Hyperion issue into Iowa’s political discourse, leading Iowa House Minority leader Ken Paulson, R-Hiawatha, to ask Gov. Chet Culver to order Leopold to “stand down and stop preventing new jobs for Iowans.”

Culver and Terry Branstad, his Republican challenger this election season, have since traded jabs over the issue.  At a town hall meeting in Ames, Branstad accused the DNR of working against the state’s economic interests, while a spokesman for Culver accused his opponent of disregarding the health of the environment.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, whose district includes the border with South Dakota, told the Iowa Independent that there is not proof that the refinery would have a negative impact on the environment.

Searching for proof of “greenness”

Spak would like to see some proof too – that the refinery “will rank among the cleanest, most environmentally-friendly in the world,” as Hyperion touts on its website.

But while Leopold dismisses a “green” oil refinery as oxymoronic “like jumbo shrimp,” Spak, an expert on the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, said that it is possible that Hyperion’s new technology could trump today’s best technology. “But we have to see it.”

“Without an environmental impact statement, we don’t know how this will be different,” Spak said.

Scott Spak

Scott Spak

Hyperion has never built an oil refinery. And as it slogs through the permitting process, researchers would like to see information that could help understand what effect the refinery would have on the environment.

To Spak, even the paperwork Hyperion submitted to get its lone permit– an air quality permit issued in August 2008 – doesn’t answer many of his questions. The data only predicted the effect of emissions on air visibility for average days, choosing not to model outcomes in worst case scenarios.

Spak said Hyperion’s methodology would not have passed muster in other states but South Dakota, a state inexperienced in such matters, is the ultimate arbiter in this case.

“Every state is responsible for choosing exactly how to evaluate new large emissions sources that affect air and water quality, but South Dakota does not have the history and established protocols for evaluating these permit applications that states like Iowa and Wisconsin do,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency also took issue Hyperion’s paperwork, as detailed in a letter it sent to the South Dakota DENR in November of 2008. The DENR rejected the criticism and still granted Hyperion the permit.

But time’s passage now threatens no nullify the permit, which requires Hyperion to start building next February – something the company is not prepared to do.

Hyperion has filed a pending application with the state Department of Energy and Natural Resources to extend the deadline. If denied, the company would have to start the process again from scratch, said Kyrik Rombaugh, natural resources engineer at the DENR.

Further complicating the process, Hyperion now must now submit more data to show compliance with new federal greenhouse gas emission standards that will take effect on January 2, 2011, he said.

“[Hyperion’s] timing is off,” said Spak. “This is something they don’t have experience with because nobody has obtained permits for this kind of plant in the U.S. under today’s environmental regulations.”

Eric Williams, spokesman for Hyperion, called questions about timeline mere “speculation,” and said the company still plans on breaking ground in the later half of 2011 and becoming operational by 2015.

“We laid out a methodical approach to obtaining the necessary permits, and continue to proceed according to our plan,” he wrote in an email.

Williams did not address more specific questions on Hyperion’s timeline, and the South Dakota DENR doesn’t have that information either.

“We can’t really act without the paperwork,” said Kim Smith, its spokesperson.

This article is part of a series about new ecological technologies in Iowa. Read more:

Bridging outer space and soil, an ISU professor finds his calling

Brian Hornbuckle holds a scale model of SMOS, the satellite launched by the European Space Agency. He's leading a team in Ames that is checking the satellite's work from the ground. - photo by Jim Malewitz

Brian Hornbuckle is trying to improve crop yields and predict flooding by measuring soil moisture – from space.


When Brian Hornbuckle cranes his neck to the nighttime sky, he’s probably not pondering the beauty of the constellations, but thinking about what’s in the Iowa soil right under his feet.  Yet he’s neither absent-minded, nor a contradiction. He’s just a man who has found his niche – where astronomy, physics and environmental science collide.

Hornbuckle, an associate professor at Iowa State University, has a unique way of understanding how the world works and how we might keep it working.

He is a physical agronomist– a term he coined. It means that he uses physics to study how plants and soil interact with climate. But throw in his expertise in satellite design and data collection, and the work gets even more interesting – interesting enough to land a role in a European Space Agency project he calls “groundbreaking” and “a perfect fit” for his hodge-podge of interests.

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Localizing the Florida Koran burning

Adding to already existing tensions about the proposed Islamic Center near where the Twin Towers once stood in New York City, Terry Jones, a Florida pastor is planning on marking September 11 by burning the Koran. Many, including ultra-conservative John Boehner and Sarah Palin think that the action will only spark fury and possible retaliations from the Muslims that Jones and his ilk fear.

Today, the Washington Post reports that Afghans are already protesting.

We could easily localize this story by interviewing Muslims locally to hear how they feel about the Koran burning. Are they blatantly offended? Simply annoyed? Or apathetic?

Omer Elgaali, President of the University of Iowa Muslim Students Association, would be one good source to gauge local opinion. I found him by searching Google for “University of Iowa Muslims.” I then clicked on the organization’s page and found a link to its leadership.

I could also interview Suhayb Ahmed, a Muslim from Cedar Rapids. I found him as a fan of the facebook page, 

Lou Licht

Lou Licht is an environmentalist and entrepreneur. He’s the founder and president of Iowa City-based Ecolotree Inc., the world’s first for-profit phytoremediation company. What the heck is phytoremediation? It’s the process of cleaning up polluted land using plants. Licht’s company uses quick-growing, commercially-valuable poplar trees to remove pollutants or render them harmless.

In a 2008 post on Green, the New York Times’ environmental blog, Azadeh Ensha discusses how phytoremediation can be used to secure waste in landfills.

If you’re interested in the cleaning up the environment using plants you should check out the Facebook page of the International Phytotechnology Society. There, you can interact with like-minded environmental geeks.

Why the links?

I linked to because it is the homepage of Ecolotree. It contains a wealth of information about the company and phyoremediation along with some biographical material on Lou Licht. It has quite a few informational tabs, including an “About Us”. I couldn’t find when it was last updated, but it looked current.

But since Ecolotree is a for-profit company, I wouldn’t use just that site to explain the environmental benefits of phytoremediation, because of the potential that it presents a biased view. To make sure I fully contextualized the process, I also linked to an article from the US Agricultural Research service, part of the US Department of Agriculture. I trusted the site because of its “.gov” domain.

I referred readers to the New York Times blog, because many people consider the paper America’s most trusted news source (although some would wholeheartedly disagree) and it’s my personal favorite. Out of the millions of random blogs on the Internet, I figured this one, affiliated with a legitimate news organization had to have some credibility.

And the Facebook page of the International Phytotechnology Society is a perfect interactive source. It has a lot of general information and discussion on its wall, some of it recent. It also had 57 members, which lends it a some credibility.