Modesty has not exactly been the hallmark of the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. In 2009, it declared that carbon dioxide — the air we exhale — is a “pollutant,” and thus falls under the Clean Air Act.
That’s why we should worry about the EPA’s upcoming decision about whether to change the regulations that govern “particulate matter” — a category that includes such nefarious toxins as farm dust. A 2010 draft policy assessment by the agency’s staff suggested that the EPA should impose massive burdens on much of the country.
The EPA is expected to release a final version of the report soon, an official policy proposal around August, and a final policy later in the year. House Republicans are trying to block additional regulations, but the Democratic Senate and President Obama could prove obstacles to fixing this problem through legislation.
Some background: In 1990, the Clean Air Act mandated the creation of a network of air-quality monitors throughout the country. Today, about 10 percent of counties have monitors that measure “PM10,” which includes both “fine” and “coarse” particulate matter. Fine particulate matter is created whenever vehicles emit exhaust fumes, or an individual smokes a cigarette; coarse matter is created whenever wind sweeps “fugitive dust” into the air on a farm, or a car kicks up dirt on an unpaved road.
The EPA has long regulated PM10, but it exempted farm dust from those regulations until it revised its standards in 2006. Now, if a monitored area consistently exceeds the EPA’s PM10 limits, it is designated a “non-attainment area” and forced to submit a plan for lowering its pollution levels.
The details are complicated, but the bottom line is that according to various studies, short-term spikes in PM10 levels cause cardiovascular and respiratory problems. However, this increase is slight — to the point that it’s difficult to detect statistically — and it shows up primarily (critics say exclusively) in urban areas. And, oddly, researchers haven’t been able to find a similar link between these problems and long-term exposure to this kind of dust.
Under the current policy, the permitted level of PM10 is 150 micrograms per cubic meter, and areas are allowed to exceed that level one day per year. About 14 percent of monitored counties fail to meet this standard. When classified as non-attainment areas, such localities might promise to build barriers to keep dust from blowing in the wind, discourage the use of wood-burning stoves, instruct farmers to change their practices, or mandate higher efficiency standards for cars.
The 2010 EPA report offers two ways of looking at this situation. The first is to emphasize the uncertainty of the science and conclude that the status quo, which has succeeded in reducing PM10 levels nationwide, is working. The second, however, is to note that the studies are fairly consistent in finding at least a small health effect — including in cities that meet the current standard, which implies that the standard could use some adjustments.
Based on the second analysis, the report proposes decreasing the level of PM10 that’s permitted to 85 micrograms per cubic meter, while increasing the number of days each area is allowed to exceed it to 2 percent (about seven per year). The EPA claims that this standard is about as protective as the current one.
This setup does have some advantages. Three of the urban areas in which studies found health effects from coarse particulate matter — Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh — meet the current standard, but would have to make improvements under the proposed one, according to the report. Also, of people living in monitored areas, the proportion living in areas that violate the standard would fall from 26 to 19 percent under the revision.
It has disadvantages as well, however. While the percentage of the population living in non-attainment areas would fall, the number of monitored counties in violation would remain about the same, dropping only from 14 to 13 percent, according to the report. Thus the EPA’s focus would move away from high-population areas (where there’s a fair amount of evidence that PM10 causes health effects) and toward rural areas (where the evidence is much weaker).
Further, a study commissioned by the Coarse Particulate Matter Coalition (an industry group that includes the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or NCBA) argues the following: A) In actuality, the number of air monitors indicating non-attainment would rise by 80 percent; B) many other counties would be pushed to the brink of non-attainment; C) a vast swath of the country — “all parts of the U.S. close to unpaved roads, unvegetated land, and agricultural sources” — would become vulnerable to non-attainment if the EPA beefed up its monitoring network; and D) meanwhile, the standard would be less stringent on urban areas in the East, South, and Pacific Northwest.
“They have said that it’s equal in terms of health protection,” says Tamara Thies, chief environmental counsel for the NCBA. “But if you look at the impact it would have on dust-emitting facilities, the difference is stark.”
And the EPA report doesn’t stop there. Instead, it suggests that the agency consider a standard as low as 65 micrograms per cubic meter. Why? Because that level is below those observed in every city where researchers have purportedly found health effects — including statistically insignificant health effects — from PM10.
Not surprisingly for an EPA report, the authors refuse to contemplate the economic sacrifices a more stringent standard would entail. They calculated the portion of the country that would run afoul of a 65-microgram standard — but, as they note explicitly, they disregarded this data in developing their recommendations. These calculations reveal that under the more restrictive standard, 44 percent of Americans in monitored areas — including 53 percent of those in the Industrial Midwest and 95 percent of those in California — would live in counties whose air is too dusty according to the EPA. According to the industry report, a 65-microgram standard would place twice as many monitors in non-attainment as an 85-microgram standard.
The agriculture industry and politicians from rural areas — who since the 2006 revision have battled the EPA’s treatment of rural dust as unduly hazardous — have been particularly alarmed by this proposal. Farmers in non-attainment areas are forced to abide by a whole laundry list of rules — rules that govern how they till their land, plant their crops, and modernize their farming equipment — in the name of keeping dust from blowing. Regulations can also force farmers to water their land almost constantly, or to stop farming on hot, dry days. You can see the government guidelines for one non-attainment area here.
One blessing is that many of these requirements are already standard operating procedure for farmers — for example, a feedyard in an arid area might already spend $1,000 a day to control dust, according to House Agriculture Committee communications director Tamara Hinton. But this is also a curse, as it means these policies are unlikely to bring the areas into compliance, which will spur fines and additional regulations. “It’s not coming out of a smokestack, so there’s no widget you can put on your farm to reduce dust,” notes a Senate GOP aide. “There’s not much you can do that they’re not already doing, except just not farm.”
The House Agriculture Committee and its chairman, Frank Lucas (R., Okla.), have been trying to warn the EPA off of implementing a new rule. Earlier this month, the House passed a resolution instructing several of its committees, including Agriculture, to review new regulations passed in their domains. The House also passed an amendment (number 563) to the continuing resolution (which funds the government while Congress debates a new budget) that would deny any funding to the EPA that would be used to modify the PM10 regulation.
Of course, with a Democratic Senate and president, these moves have limited potential. “We’ll have to see. This is something that does resonate with Democratic senators from farming states,” says the Senate GOP aide. “I think you’ll see a large number of farming senators really stepping up on this.”
He adds: “Whether the president will be receptive to the concerns of the farming community is yet to be seen. It’s certainly not reflected in what his EPA is doing.”
— Robert VerBruggen is a National Review associate editor.