Senator says dust regulation unnecessary; agency says farmers needn’t worry

From driving down rural roads to cattle stomping around the feedlot, dust is a common byproduct of farm life in Kansas.

And that’s exactly why the state’s agricultural organizations are so concerned about the Environmental Protection Agency’s review of the Clean Air Act, which, among other things, stipulates how much coarse particulate matter (aka dust) can be in the air.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., cosponsored a bill that would prohibit the EPA from regulating farm dust. In a press release, Roberts said the regulation “defies common sense.”

To be clear, the EPA hasn’t proposed any changes to the limits of coarse particulate matter that can be in the air. Right now the standard is set at 150 micrograms per cubic meter, which can’t be exceeded more than once a year over an average of three years. If it is exceeded, states have to submit an implementation plan that details what steps they will take to reduce the pollutants.

The Clean Air Act has been around for more than 40 years, and the 150 micrograms per cubic meter standard has been on the books since 1987. It’s a limit the state of Kansas has never exceeded. What has farmers and Roberts concerned is the EPA’s routine five-year review of the Clean Air Act standards.

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, an independent advisory board, recommended that the EPA revise its current coarse particulate matter standard to between 65 to 75 micrograms per cubic meter.

And that’s a standard that just an average windy day in Dodge City could exceed, said Allie Devine, vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association.

“We estimate most of the western United States would exceed (national air standards) if the new lower standard for dust is adopted,” Devine said.

The Kansas Livestock Association has joined a coalition of other industries in the western half of the country to study the implications of such a standard and the health effects of dust.

“Here’s the kicker,” Devine said “The Clean Air Act requires there to be a health effect. And we don’t believe there is substantial data, or actually there is very little data, that supports the health effects of large particulate matter.”

While the smaller particulate matter can more easily escape into the lungs, Devine said the larger stuff mainly stays in the nose.

According to the EPA, scientific studies have linked exposure to coarse particles to increased respiratory symptoms in children and to hospital admissions or even premature death for people with heart or lung disease.

Furthermore the EPA contends the monitoring requirements don’t target rural areas. In Kansas, 10 air monitors measure coarse particulate matter. Four of those monitors are in the Wichita area, another two are in the Kansas City metro area, and the rest are in Topeka, Dodge City, Goodland and Chanute.

Kansas has never exceeded the standard. And according to the EPA, the vast majority of states who do have to reduce their emissions focus on pollutants from industrial and construction settings.

“There are no plans to regulate the dust from any farm,” said Kris Lancaster, an EPA Region 7 spokesman. “The focus is and consistently has been in urban areas where most of the air pollution is.”

Steve Baccus, a farmer near Salina and president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, scoffs at some of the proposals he has heard for curbing the dust from farming. They include speed bumps in feedlots, watering country roads, putting a diaper-like contraption on combines, lowering the gears on farm equipment so they go slower and limiting how many times fields can be tilled.

For Baccus they would all add more money and time to his farming operation.

“For some of this, there is no common sense involved,” he said.

But Lancaster said he doesn’t know of any such recommendations that have come from the EPA.

“We haven’t proposed any such ridiculous things,” he said.

As for Roberts’ proposed bill, dubbed The Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, it would stop the EPA from imposing more stringent standards for one year. It would also give state and municipalities the ability to regulate the issue before the federal government. And before the EPA could impose stricter standards, it would have to prove there were substantial health effects from dust and that those concerns outweighed economic ones.

“Our producers deserve respect and appreciation from the EPA, not costly and redundant regulation,” Roberts said in a press release.

By Christine Metz

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