EPA's phantom rule sparks an uproar

WASHINGTON — Impenetrable gridlock has forced Washington into an era of government-by-talking-point, and earlier this year Republicans found what they saw as the ideal talking point to illustrate a federal bureaucracy gone batty.

The Environmental Protection Agency, they warned, was trying to regulate something only God could control: the dust in the wind.

"Now, here comes my favorite of the crazy regulatory acts. The EPA is now proposing rules to regulate dust," Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said on the House floor. He said Texas was full of dusty roads: "The EPA is now saying you can be fined for driving home every night on your gravel road."

There was just one flaw in this argument. It was not true.

The EPA's new dust rule did not exist. It never did.

Still, the specter of this rule has spurred three bills to prevent it, one of which will be voted on today in a House subcommittee.

The hubbub over this phantom rule, surely one of the most controversial regulations that never was, involved a slow-moving federal agency and a Republican Party with the EPA in its crosshair s.

"I do believe that the EPA does have the ability to change its mind," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., sponsor of the bill to be voted on today.

The EPA has now confirmed that it does not intend to strengthen standards on farm dust. But Noem is still pushing a bill to go further and weaken the EPA's power to set these rules in the future.

Farm dust, the stuff at the center of this story, contains such things as windblown dirt, bits of last year's cornstalks and manure dried to powder. It is an ancient fact of farm life.

By the EPA's rules, it is also pollution.

The EPA lumps it in with soot from power plants, as "coarse particle pollution." The agency limits how much of this can be in the air, since these particles can cause heart and lung damage.