Stirring up dust - again

Nov 18, 2011

Just when ag groups thought there would be some settling on farm-related particulate matter, environmental group WildEarth Guardians is doing their part to stir up the dust again.

In late October, the group petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “rein in dangerous levels of particulate matter air pollution in 21 areas in eight western states, including Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.”

The group points out the Clean Air Act rules, referring to ambient air quality standard and EPA’s requirements if an area violates any ambient air quality standard. “Despite violating PM-10 standards, the EPA has yet to put the 21 areas on the path to clean up,” the release said.

Particulate matter pollution consists of very small liquid and solid particles floating in the air. Particles less than 10 microns in diameter (about 1/7th the thickness of a human hair), are known as PM-10.

PM-10 is a mixture of materials that can include smoke, soot, dust, salts, acids and metals and can form when gases create chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

According to the group, the areas violating PM-10 standards include:

• Arizona: Douglas, Nogales, Tucson and Yuma. • Colorado: Alamosa, Durango, Grand Junction, Lamar, Pagosa Springs and Parachute.

• Montana: A portion of Jefferson County south of Helena.

• Nevada: Pahrump.

• New Mexico: Anthony, Chaparral, Deming, Las Cruces and Sunland Park.

• Oklahoma: Tulsa.

• Utah: Salt Lake and Utah counties. • Wyoming: A portion of Sweetwater County near Point of Rocks.

Under the Clean Air Act, if an area violates PM-10 standards, EPA is required to designate the area as “nonattainment,” which triggers deadlines for states to act. If an area that is already designated as “nonattainment” violates PM-10 air quality standards, EPA must reclassify its designation as “Serious,” which imposes more stringent clean up requirements.

In this case, WildEarth Guardians called for 15 areas to be designated as “nonattainment” and for six additional areas to be reclassified as “Serious” nonattainment areas, including Douglas, AZ, Nogales, AZ, Yuma, AZ, Anthony, NM, Salt Lake County, UT, and Utah County, UT.

According to the release, sources of PM-10 pollution in these areas include dust blown from disturbed lands, mining operations, coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, dirt roads and other kinds of burning (e.g., wood stoves, industrial boilers).

While dust from farms is not specifically listed, farmers in those regions may be asked to do more to reduce dust emissions if EPA takes action.

There are more than 13,700 farms operating in the 18 counties mentioned in the petition, including more than 7.6 million acres of farm land, according to information from the 2007 Census of Agriculture.

PM-10 has also been connected to haze, or smog. EPA reached a settlement agreement on Nov. 9 requiring 43 states to protect public health and air quality by limiting haze pollution.

EPA had already agreed to ensure that 10 western states—California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming—have regional haze plans in place. The latest agreement ensures that Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota and Washington are also on track, as well as ensures that complete haze plans are adopted in Idaho, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, H.R.

1633, introduced by Reps. Kristi Noem, R-SD, and Leonard Boswell, D-IA, addresses the threat of increased federal regulation of dust by preventing EPA from imposing more stringent federal dust standards.

It also exempts nuisance dust from EPA regulation where dust is already regulated under state, tribal or local law.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power held a hearing and approved the legislation on Nov. 10. The 12-9 vote will send it to the full Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration.

The measure is expected to easily pass in full committee and in the House, but may struggle getting through the Senate where Sens. Mike Johanns, R-NE, and Chuck Grassley, R-IA, continue to push a similar stand-alone bill.

During the hearing, Democrats mocked the legislation, arguing that EPA has no plans to regulate farm dust and that the proposal is just the latest push in the GOP’s war against environmental regulations.

“There is no plan to regulate farm dust any more than there is to regulate fairy dust,” Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA, said in his opening statements.

Democrats pointed out that the biggest problem with the bill is that it does not actually target farm dust. Its language instead bars EPA from regulating “nuisance dust,” which is defined as a range of things including “windblown dust” and particulate matter that is “generated from natural sources, unpaved roads, agricultural activities, earth moving, or other activities typically conducted in rural areas.”

The Democrats argued that about 70 percent of the nation’s power plants are in rural areas, and the pollution they produce would have to be considered an activity “typically conducted in rural areas.” They also noted that all particulate matter is “windblown dust,” whether it comes from a diesel truck exhaust or an open mine.

If the bill became law, Democrats argued that such vague language could effectively block EPA from enforcing any rules on particulate pollution.

Farmers and others testifying said measures taken by producers in some states have been met with mixed results.

Some non-attainment areas in California have come into attainment in part as a result of efforts by farmers. Non-attainment areas in Arizona, however, continue to struggle to reduce PM-10 pollution. That includes Maricopa County where readings show the area remains in non-attainment. If state efforts to reduce PM-10 are unsuccessful, EPA has the authority to force states to further tighten measures or risk losing federal highway dollars.

Many producers have posted speed limit signs on dirt roads, parked combines and other equipment on windy days, planted cover crops, watered down or even paved dirt roads to cut dust—all efforts that hurt farmers’ bottom lines.

“We´re only one lawsuit away from EPA being forced to regulate dust on roads and farming activities.”

Kevin Rogers, a fourthgeneration farmer in Arizona, testified at the hearing.

“My farm in Arizona lies in one of the worst areas for dust in the nation. Within the past couple of months, four huge, naturally-occurring dust clouds have risen from the desert and swept over the Phoenix and Tucson areas …this is the ‘dust’ that EPA regulates under the NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards]… The area where I farm near Phoenix has one of the highest coarse PM levels in the United States, a distinction that we share with the San Joaquin Valley in southern California. It is arid and windy, similar to many other rural areas in the West, Southwest and Plains. The area where I farm cannot even meet the current coarse PM standard, and we have been in serious nonattainment for several years.”

The effort to stop EPA regulation on farm dust has continued despite EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s statement that EPA has no plans to tighten the dust standard on farms.

Regardless of what Jackson “promises,” outside groups and industries file lawsuits and courts frequently determine law.

“We’re only one lawsuit away from EPA being forced to regulate dust on roads and farming activities,” according to Rep. Lee Terry, R-NE.

EPA already has over 400 pending lawsuits and WildEarth Guardians has hinted of a lawsuit if EPA doesn’t respond quickly to this petition. The question is, will this be the “one” Terry is referring to or is it already one of the 400 pending? — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor