Clearing up the CLEER Act
By U.S. Representative Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
In July of 2011, a huge dust storm nearly a mile high at its largest point rolled from Tucson to Phoenix in my home state of Arizona. Bringing visibility down to absolute zero at several points on its 50 miles wide warpath across the desert, the storm grounded planes for an hour and a half and left thousands of cars, buildings and homes caked in a thick coat of grime.
Not surprisingly, this huge dust storm caused pollution levels in the area to skyrocket. It's been reported that the level of particulate matter - the scientific term for dust - reached more than double the level federal standards consider healthy the day after the storm hit.
Under the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for air quality pollutants, including particulate matter, or dust. Having air quality data, collected from a network of monitors, showing that standards have been exceeded can trigger a set of burdensome regulations that can ultimately lead to federally enforceable pollution control requirements.
Whether a state is currently meeting the standards or already failing to attain them, instances of exceeding the CAA standards can have costly regulatory consequences even if they are caused by so-called "exceptional events" - or events like the dust storm that roared through The Grand Canyon State that are simply beyond human control. Ranchers and farmers in arid parts of the country are already forced every year to spend too much money mitigating dust. But asking them to pay more to get rid of dust caused by natural phenomena completely outside their control is completely unacceptable.
While one would think it would simply be commonsense, the EPA has a complex process to exempt from air quality data the spikes caused by exceptional events. Maybe not so surprising, the process by which states submit these events for review is complicated, unpredictable, long, and above all, expensive. Frankly, even EPA has admitted this process is broken.
Earlier this week, I introduced the Commonsense Legislative Exceptional Events Reform (CLEER) Act, which will remedy a number of issues that make the exceptional events review process untenable for states and for the ranchers and farmers who are affected most by dust.
The EPA has no timeline under which to review states' requests to exclude an exceptional event, which come in the form of costly demonstrations submitted by states for the EPA's review. This causes considerable and completely avoidable regulatory uncertainty. The CLEER Act will require a 90 day review period, with the demonstration being considered approved if EPA hasn't taken action.
The regulations governing exceptional events leave the decision entirely at the discretion of EPA. Exclusions are granted only at the "EPA's satisfaction," whatever that means. The CLEER Act will require the EPA to provide specific and publically-disclosed criteria on which exceptional events demonstrations will be evaluated, recognizing the varying level of expertise and resources available at the state and local level.
The legislation also calls for the consideration of an expedited approval process and forces EPA to give wide discretion to the state's in deciding what is and isn't exception. In this case, we can all agree that states know best.
Finally, the CLEER Act adds a level of accountability by making EPA's decisions on exceptional events demonstrations appealable.
Here's the bottom line: States, farmers, and ranchers shouldn't face bureaucratic penalties from the EPA for naturally occurring events, like dust storms. The CLEER Act will make the process to exempt these exceptional events clearer, faster, and less costly.
Though the issue is dust, our goal is clear: Congress must act to ease this regulatory burden. I'm proud to have the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's support for this bill and will work to ensure its swift passage in the House.