AIR POLLUTION:

Pre-emptive attacks on dust rules draw rebuke from EPA

Farm groups and members of Congress are jumping the gun in their efforts to stop U.S. EPA from making its air pollution rules tougher on dusty rural areas, the agency's second-in-command said yesterday.

The stopgap spending bill passed by the House last week included an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), that would prevent EPA from updating the national air quality standards for coarse particles. It was a pre-emptive strike, meant to stop the agency from following through on a set of recommendations from staffers that were seen by farming groups as a threat to rural areas (E&E Daily, Feb. 19).

Some farmers and other rural industry groups are claiming that EPA is trying to crack down on farm dust for the first time. They say many rural areas would have trouble meeting the new standard because of the dust kicked up by cattle and trucks on dirt roads.

The argument has gotten support from lawmakers such as Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who argued on the House floor that a change to the dust standards would allow EPA to levy new fines on farmers and would require costly control measures that defy common sense.

"The dust police rule would make it more expensive to feed America," Poe said. "Does the EPA wish that we import all of our food, like we do crude oil? This sounds a little bit un-American to me."

The Noem amendment, which passed 255-168, has indeed caught EPA's attention, but the agency doesn't agree with the criticism. Claims that EPA is planning to create onerous new rules for farm dust aren't based on reality, Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe said.

"Of course, we've had a coarse particle standard for many, many decades, and many places have done remarkable things, including the Central Valley of California, to comply with those," he said during an event in Washington. "But we have not proposed any different standard."

"The key is, in order to get the certainty, we've got to move forward with the process," he added in response to the amendment, which would block EPA from reviewing the standards. "And in order to move forward with the process, people have to have discussions that are not based on what might happen, but what is actually, really happening."

Even without restrictions on its budget, EPA is already running behind on its review of the dust and soot limits.

The agency has yet to release a key staff memo on its options for the standards, which are supposed to be updated every five years. That policy assessment was expected last fall, and without it, staffers will have a hard time finishing a final rule by the October deadline in the Clean Air Act (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

A draft version of the policy memo suggested a new limit on coarse particles. Though staffers said that the day-to-day dust limit could be lowered to protect public health, their suggested standard would ignore more days with unusually high dust levels because scientists haven't found as strong a link between health problems and the brief spikes in the levels of dust that farmers are worried about.

The agency's draft memo said the two standards would be roughly equivalent, but critics say that's not the case.

A recent study commissioned by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) found that the suggested changes could double or triple the number of air pollution monitors that violate the standards. Most of those areas are in Great Plains and Southwestern states.

"If EPA moves forward with this overreaching regulation, ranchers could be fined for everyday activities like driving down the road, moving cattle or tilling a field," NCBA President Bill Donald said in a statement after the passage of the Noem amendment. "It is encouraging that some elected officials understand the detrimental impacts this regulation could have on production agriculture. I just hope EPA is listening."

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