Clearing the Air on Dust: Debunking Myths
Ashley Lyon, NCBA Deputy Environmental Counsel
The opposition to Rep. Kristi Noem’s (R-SD) Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011(H.R. 1663) cannot get its arguments straight. On one hand they argue that farm dust regulation is a “fantasy issue” and liken it to fairy dust and children’s nursery rhymes. On the other hand, they say the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority should not be taken away because it will be the ruin of health of rural America. Unfortunately for these folks, they cannot have it both ways.
They cannot claim that farm dust regulation is a fairytale while simultaneously saying that removal of such authority will imperil the health of rural Americans. Either EPA does or does not directly cause the regulation of dust from farming activities.
We begin with a minor lesson on the functioning of the Clean Air Act. Coarse Particulate Matter (dust) is one of several criteria pollutants upon which EPA sets a National Ambient Air Quality Standard (standard). The current standard for dust is 150 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Once EPA in Washington sets that standard (which is reviewed every five years), it determines nonattainment areas that violate the standard and then require the states to develop a State Implementation Plan (SIP), which is the state’s plan to get a nonattainment area back into attainment.
If the area continues to stay in nonattainment, EPA can develop a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) for the area. These plans can entail all kinds of measures to lower the area’s dust levels. One option is regulation. In areas of California and Arizona, these regulations include mandatory Best Management Practices (BMPs) for farmers and ranchers. Mandatory practices, or regulations, placed on producers because of a standard set by EPA in Washington, D.C., is de facto regulation. It is clear that for all practical purposes, EPA does, in fact, regulate farm dust. It just uses the state government to do its dirty work.
The second scare tactic used is by declaring that rural Americans will suddenly be in danger should H.R. 1633 become law. What the opposition forgets to mention is that there is zero evidence that rural dust causes any health concern at ambient levels. Currently, the standard remains in place simply through a little thing called the “precautionary principle.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has reiterated this message time and again to the agency. Twice EPA has recognized this fact by proposing in 1996 to eliminate the coarse particulate matter standard all together because of lack of evidence and second in 2006 when it proposed to exempt agriculture from the standard. Unfortunately, neither of these proposals remained in the final rule and we are left with a standard that is not based on science but precaution.
Finally, dust is an issue that is best addressed at the state and local level. H.R. 1633 gives states and local governments the pilot seat on dust regulation. The climate varies so significantly across this country that applying one uniform standard is inappropriate and impractical. Farmers and ranchers should not be penalized because they happen to operate in an arid climate. Dust levels in Connecticut will be vastly different than dust levels in New Mexico. States are the experts on their own climate and should be afforded the first chance to protect their citizens in the manner they see fit. H.R. 1633 embodies this federalist approach by exempting “nuisance dust” from the Clean Air Act if state or local dust measures are in place.
If state or local governments do not have dust measures in place, the EPA administrator can only apply the federal standard after he or she makes a finding that the dust causes a health concern and its benefits outweigh the cost to the local economy. H.R. 1633 recognizes that if a problem should arise that states and localities are not dealing with, then the EPA does have the opportunity to do so. But it is no longer allowed to regulate based on the precautionary principle.
I hope this clears the air a bit about what is happening with dust regulation and what Rep. Noem’s bill actually would do. H.R. 1633 was passed by the House of Representatives today (Dec. 8, 2011) and will now await action by the Senate.