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Air rules are creating a dustup in farm states

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.

Farm-state congressmen and their tractor-driving constituents contend federal bureaucrats are on the verge of saddling them with a new, costly and harebrained government regulation.

They deridingly call it the "farm dust" rule.

Indeed, farm country is abuzz over what some see as the Environmental Protection Agency's latest assault on farmers and common sense.

"It's just another way to impede agricultural progress and increase the price of food," said George Pretz, a Miami County cattleman.

As a result, a stampede has developed in Congress — with many in the Missouri and Kansas delegations joining in — to prohibit the EPA from further regulating farm dust.

For its part, the EPA — the same agency some critics incorrectly believed had plans to tax ranchers on cow flatulence — says the farm dust concerns are yet another tempest in a teapot.

"Some misleading agitators have proclaimed that EPA is planning to focus on regulating dust from farm fields or gravel roads," EPA administrator Lisa Jackson told Congress in March. "Simply put, there is no truth to that allegation."

Stricter standards

The phrase "farm dust" is nowhere the Clean Air Act of 1970, the congressional mandate under which the EPA is said to be considering the new rule.

The act does, however, regulate a whole host of air pollutants, including something called "coarse particulate matter," which some in Congress are now calling "farm dust."

The act requires that those particulates be monitored and regulated across the United States, not just on farms.

Coarse particulates, which are seven times smaller than a human hair, become suspended in the air. Because of their tiny size, they are easily inhaled and can get past the respiratory system's natural defenses and lead to health problems. That's why Congress wanted them regulated.

As part of the 1970 act, Congress also required the EPA to review clean air standards every five years and make necessary adjustments. That review is going on now.

As part of the process, a committee of outside experts recommended in April that the agency adopt stricter standards for coarse particulates.

"I can understand the basis for the concern," committee chairman Jonathan Samet told The Star recently. "But the goal here is to protect people. What is most critical here is how the science is interpreted. We can argue over incremental improvements, but it all goes back to the Clean Air Act, and the fact is that it has worked. The air in the U.S. is much cleaner than it used to be."

Jackson, the EPA administrator, has not decided whether to adopt those recommendations.

Over-regulation blues

The uncertainty of it all prompted freshman U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a cattle rancher and South Dakota Republican, to propose the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011.

The bill seeks to put a hold on the EPA's ability to institute stricter standards for coarse particulates.

"This is probably the most anti-business, anti-farmer EPA we have ever had," Noem told The Star. "I don't trust them enough to take their word for anything."

At least 87 House Republicans and three Democrats — including many in the Missouri and Kansas delegations — are backing the measure. A companion bill in the Senate is also popular.

The farm-dust dustup is actually part of a broader agenda among congressional Republicans. They say costly government regulations backed by President Obama and his supporters are helping to keep the nation mired in a tepid, jobless recovery.

As a result, anti-regulation bills are proliferating in Congress.

"There is a lot of antipathy toward agriculture at the EPA," says Gary Baise, a Washington lawyer who helped form the EPA in 1970 and now makes a living handling suits involving the agency. "(The EPA) believes farmers have gotten away with murder over the years" and views agriculture as "a major environmental culprit," he said.

The EPA vigorously denies anti-farmer bias, but examples certainly exist of what appear to be overzealous federal regulations aimed at agriculture.

For example, the EPA once wanted to require dairy farmers to treat milk spills as though they were oil leaks from the Exxon Valdez. But earlier this year, under pressure from farm groups and the White House, the agency backed off without enforcing the decades-old rule.

The Internet spawns new over-regulation rumors — especially about the EPA — almost daily. The problem with many of those claims, though, is that they aren't true.

Several years ago, for example, the EPA decided to start studying greenhouse gas emissions, and the rumor quickly spread that the agency would be taxing farmers for every cow they owned because of the methane they released.

Not true, the EPA says. Never was.

Dust storms

Those concerned that the EPA will soon announce new farm dust rules point to recent agency action in Arizona.

There, the EPA has cracked down, using the less-strict standards already in place for coarse particulates. The action came after air monitors recorded excess particulates numerous times.

State and county officials say that while the EPA bureaucracy has been somewhat burdensome, the agency is trying to be accommodating.

Local governments have banded together to help solve the problem, partly because some areas have endured huge dust storms this summer.

In fact, almost everyone has pitched in to help. Even though farmers are responsible for only about 4 percent of the problem in Arizona, they are pitching in, too.

The American Farm Bureau federation has declared that stricter farm dust rules could "severely hamper the ability of farmers and ranchers to meet the world's food needs." But the bureau's man in Arizona strikes a more conciliatory tone. "As an industry, we came together and we said we understand," said Phil Bashaw of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation.

In the end, however, EPA officials are on record as saying farm dust really isn't much of a concern for them.

Yet as Americans continue to lose faith in their government, the debate over farm dust continues between what polls show are two of the most unpopular government entities of all — Congress and the EPA.

"The EPA says it has no intention of regulating this stuff," said Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington public-policy research group.

"But instead of trying to contribute to a solution to our economic problems, Congress is trying to whip people into a frenzy and get them to believe the worst."

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