AIR POLLUTION:

Federal court upholds EPA's rural dust rule

A federal appeals court yesterday denied an industry request to order U.S. EPA to reconsider its decision to regulate dust in rural areas, a move that agricultural groups say could stifle farmers unnecessarily.

In its response to a host of legal challenges brought against the Bush administration's 2006 standards for airborne soot and dust, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to exempt the regulation of farm dust.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council challenged EPA in 2006 over its decision to regulate coarse particulate matter -- or dust -- in rural areas, arguing that the agency had failed to show any negative health effects associated with the dust (Greenwire, Dec. 15, 2006).

EPA had considered exempting farming and mining operations, but the agency ultimately decided it could not exclude particular industries.

Farming and agriculture groups said the regulations would hurt their industries, affecting everything from combine dust to feedlot dust and even the dust from gravel roads. But environmentalists argued against the exemption for some industrial sources, saying there was compelling evidence that agricultural dust negatively affected public health and the environment.

In its opinion yesterday, the court upheld EPA's rule for farm dust, saying that the industry petitioners "mistakenly equated an absence of certainty about dangerousness with the existence of certainty about safety."

While the judges acknowledged that evidence about the dangers of rural dust is "inconclusive," they said that the agency was not required to wait for conclusive results before regulating a pollutant believed to pose a significant risk to public health.

"All of EPA's focus, all their studies and research was looking at coarse [particulate matter] from combustion sources," said Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel at the National Pork Producers Council. "They haven't proved that there's any health risk; they really don't know what we're emitting."

The pork producers group had hoped that the court would send the rule back to EPA until further studies were completed, Formica said.

"We don't mind regulation if it's efficient and it makes sense," Formica said. But he called yesterday's ruling "a bad decision that will have a profound and long-lasting impact on the struggling American economy."

But environmentalists said EPA was right to err on the side of caution.

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said that coarse airborne particles in rural areas were often coated with pesticides, herbicides, toxics or metals, and could pose risks similar to those in urban areas.

"It's better to protect public health with a bit of uncertainty than to ignore these health effects that we will regret later on," Becker said.

Click here to read the court's decision.

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