Group says ‘farm dust’ rule ban would also block EPA fossil-fuel emissions regs

A Republican-fronted bill meant to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coarse dust particles from farms and rural roads would inadvertently ban the agency from regulating dust emissions from industrial sources such as power plants, an environmental group said today.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., is lead sponsor of a bill that would exclude “nuisance dust” — which the legislation defines as particulate matter generated from rural activities — from EPA air regulations if states and localities already regulate it. Republicans have been concerned that American farmers and cattle ranchers have had trouble complying with existing particulate matter standards.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council and the EPA testified today that the bill’s nuisance dust definition is so vague that it could end up including particulate matter, both coarse and fine, emitted from diesel trucks, coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other industrial processes that occur in rural areas.

“That has sweeping, sweeping implications that certainly aren’t suggested by the ‘Farm Dust’ title,” John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told a House panel.

Walke pointed to the phrase “rural activities,” noting that many power plants, diesel trucks and oil refineries operate in rural areas.

Gina McCarthy, EPA’s top air-quality official, said she would expect to hear arguments that particulate matter generated from rural activities could also include precursor chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which also come from burning fossil fuels.

“If these arguments were successful, it could have far-reaching consequences, such as forever barring the EPA from limiting power plants’ emissions of coarse particles, fine particles, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury,” McCarthy said in written testimony.

Her comments echo EPA concerns about another Republican bill, the TRAIN Act, that the agency has said could destroy its ability to regulate certain power plant emissions.

Coarse particulate matter, which comes from farms, construction work, roads, fossil-fuel ash and other sources, has been linked to lung diseases and increases in premature death and hospitalizations, environmental and health groups say.

Noem said EPA’s current coarse particulate matter standard already affects farms in states like Arizona that are in non-compliance. She defended her bill, saying it “specifically focuses on rural dust and allows the standard to apply unchanged to urban areas.”

EPA in 2006 proposed exempting agricultural activities from an updated standard for coarse particulate matter, but then dropped the exemption from the final rule. 2011 is the five-year deadline for the EPA to review its previous rule and propose an updated version.

Environmental and health groups have threatened to sue the agency if it doesn’t act soon on that standard, as well as one for fine particulate matter, claiming the EPA missed the five-year deadline.

The bill would also prevent EPA from updating coarse-particulate standards for at least a year. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said last week her agency wouldn’t strengthen its standard for coarse particulate matter at this time. But Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said he was concerned EPA could change its mind.

“Tomorrow could not be ‘at this time.’ Isn’t that part of the risk?” Shimkus said.

The farm dust issue has even spilled over into the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decried Republicans such as Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., for trying to amend the American Jobs Act with language that mirror’s Noem’s bill.

Doing that is “the only way to confuse the American people,” Reid said.

“EPA doesn’t regulate farm dust, they don’t want to regulate farm dust,” Reid said on the Senate floor in mid-October. “Let’s start talking about things that create jobs, that help put people back to work.”

Johanns said he would drop his amendment soon after Jackson announced EPA wouldn’t strengthen the coarse particulate matter standard.

Noem has vowed to press on, echoing Shimkus by saying the agency could change its mind at any time.

“Our farmers and ranchers deserve a final, definitive answer and this legislation would provide that,” Noem said in written testimony today.