House blocks nonexistent rule on farm dust

Associated Press Contributor
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WASHINGTON—The House has passed a bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from cracking down on farm dust, even though the agency says it has no plans to regulate that pollution.

The idea that farm dust could be regulated has proved a popular topic on the campaign trail, riding a wave of anti-regulation sentiment. Republicans and some Democrats have told farm-state audiences that the EPA is considering a crackdown on farms, even though the agency issued a public statement in October calling that a “myth.”

Environmental Protection Agency officials have said repeatedly that they won’t propose new regulations to limit dust stirred up by farm equipment. But sponsors say the bill — which passed 268-150, with the support of 33 Democrats — will give more certainty to the agriculture industry and ward off potential lawsuits over the dust.

The House GOP has pushed a host of measures this year aimed at weakening, delaying or scrapping environmental regulations, saying they view them as job killers.

“This bill is a strong step in the right direction to reduce regulatory uncertainty,” said South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, the Republican sponsor of the farm dust legislation. She added that the EPA’s words “are empty promises until we back them up with real action.”

Other Republican supporters of the bill appeared to completely ignore the EPA’s statements that there will be no new regulations.

“Where’s the EPA going to be next, checking under my bed for dust bunnies?” asked Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “The EPA’s regulations on this are the height of overreach.”

Democratic opponents said the bill is a waste of time and written so broadly that it could go beyond just preventing farm dust, exempting mine operations and other industrial activities as well.

“It’s not really about farms at all,” said California Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The White House said Wednesday that President Barack Obama will veto the bill if it comes to his desk. An administration policy statement said the “ambiguously written bill would create high levels of regulatory uncertainty regarding emission control requirements that have been in place for years.”

The statement added that the legislation “purports to address a problem that does not exist.”

The bill is not expected to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The dust flap dates back several years, to when Republican President George W. Bush’s EPA proposed regulating rural and urban areas more equally when it comes to “coarse particulate matter” — or soot — in the air. Farms could fall under the tighter restrictions. Farm groups challenged that in court, and a federal appeals court ruled in February 2009 that the EPA had already provided the evidence necessary to determine farm dust “likely is not safe.”

Obama’s EPA initially defended that decision. An EPA spokeswoman said after the ruling that regardless of whether someone lives in a rural or urban area, the threshold for unsafe levels of dust in the air should remain consistent nationally. But later, Jackson said the agency was unlikely to single out farm dust.

Under current rules, states are tasked with making sure that their levels of particulate matter in the air are below certain levels. Farm groups have worried, however, that their pollution — dust kicked up behind a combine, for example — would be targeted separately.

“Cattlemen and women worried about being fined for moving cattle, tilling a field or even driving down a dirt road should rest assured knowing that will not be allowed to happen on our watch,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bill Donald said in a statement after the vote.

One major farm group called the bill a waste of time, however. National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said misinformation spreading across the country has created unnecessary concern for farm country.

“Congress should stop politicizing this issue and move on to passing meaningful legislation to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities,” Johnson said.