Farm Dust Frenzy: A Misleading and Distracting Regulatory Myth

For the past several months, members of Congress and agriculture associations have decried a supposedly imminent regulatory threat by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – new standards for a type of air pollution referred to as "farm dust." Despite assurances from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that the agency will not issue new Clean Air Act regulations for coarse particulate matter (PM10), which would include farm dust, the mere notion of new air pollution standards has sent legislators and some agriculture groups into a frenzy to block future agency actions.

After giving several indications that EPA would not promulgate new National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) impacting farm dust, Jackson confirmed the agency's position Oct. 14. In a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jackson wrote that the agency did not intend to revise the current standards for coarse particulate matter. Politico reported that, on the same day, Jackson said she intends to clear up the myths surrounding EPA regulation and "talk about what's really happening inside the four walls of the EPA."

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to reconsider the NAAQS standards, which cover pollutants such as airborne particulate matter, every five years. EPA must review and revise the standards as necessary to ensure they are at a level "requisite to protect public health" within "an adequate margin of safety." EPA has not only the authority but the obligation to review and tighten those standards if necessary to protect public health. The agency has concluded after such review that it is unnecessary to revise the standards for coarse PM at this time.

The statutory mandate to review air quality standards seems to be lost on those who inaccurately frame EPA's actions as “attacks on farmers.” It has been reported that EPA is "cracking down on farm dust"; some articles even imply that Jackson lied to or misled those inquiring about the rule. The panic over farm dust is not the first time an unsubstantiated regulatory myth has resulted in opposition to an agency. Experts in agricultural policy argue that these "urban legends" distract from the substantial policy issues facing agency leaders.

Still Fighting Nonexistent Regulations

While it might seem that EPA's pronouncement that there will not be new NAAQS regulations for coarse PM would assuage concerns, Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) is pushing ahead with the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011, H.R. 1633. The bill would prohibit the EPA from issuing a new standard for coarse particulate matter and exempt some coarse PM from federal regulations by excluding "nuisance dust" from the definition of particulate matter under the Clean Air Act. Noem’s stance on the legislation was not affected by Jackson's assurance that the standard would not be revised.

"EPA's announcement does nothing to change the fact that they are still able to regulate farm dust. If the EPA has no intention of regulating farm dust then they should support my legislation, which excludes farm dust managed at the state or local level from federal regulatory standards," Noem said.

Others note that Noem's legislation is unnecessary and fundamentally flawed. John Walke, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Clean Air Program, wrote that the bill would "[shut] down the scientific process of reviewing medical evidence to identify levels of coarse particle pollution levels that are harmful to human health." Walke further criticized H.R. 1633 for casting the bill "as salvation for 'farm dust'" when, in fact, it prevents EPA from issuing health standards for pollution that comes predominantly from industry, not farmers. Walke also warned that these bills are championed by people with an anti-regulatory agenda.

On Oct. 25, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the legislation. Noem defended her bill alongside panelists including supporters from the American Farm Bureau Federation and other agriculture trade associations. Walke, who also testified, charged that the "bill is sweepingly over-inclusive, creates unintended consequences, and increases harmful air pollution and health hazards for the American people."

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