By Dan Murphy, AgNetwork commentator

"The EPA is waging an unprecedented battle to end U.S. farming as we know it. Wielding regulation like a scythe, on the books or proposed, EPA is trying single-handed (sic) to make farming obsolete." (Meat Trade News)

"Regulations are intended to influence human behavior, yet dust is common in our natural environment. Furthermore, those who cause dust clouds are likely to be the most negatively affected by them. Incentives already exist to minimize dust creation without the help of regulations." (The Heritage Foundation)

"Is common sense extinct at EPA? Why do they do these wacky things and then claim that we are the ones being alarmists? They are a federal department that just is out of control." (Sen. Mike Johanns)

"There is a feeling in farm and ranch circles that an aggressive and unchecked EPA has set out to make U.S. agriculture obsolete." (Texas Farm Bureau)

Obsolete? Really?

No, not really. But the battle over controlling dust is yet another example of how politics have affected policymaking, to the detriment of both.

This all started over a congressionally mandated, five-year review of the Clean Air Act, which EPA enforces. In that process, national air quality data — and the data collection methods — are analyzed and a cost-benefit calculation for the regulations is documented.

But in what has become a familiar cycle of misinformation and overreaction, the accusation that EPA was planning "a tenfold reduction in the thresholds of coarse particle matter," quickly began circulating in farm policy circles and among agricultural media. Although that had merely been a proposal offered for discussion last year, and then dropped by the agency's leadership, the "tenfold decrease" phrase didn't die. The idea that EPA was planning to outlaw "dust" across all of farming continued to be repeated, even as recently as this month.

Although even the most ardent critics of EPA have acknowledged publicly that the worst-case scenario would be a 50 percent (actually 40 percent) decrease in acceptable small particulate levels, ongoing media coverage continued to repeat the "tenfold decrease" accusation as a sure sign that if you're a farmer, the government's out to get you.

A check on reality
Meanwhile, EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan told the Associated Press this month that the particulate matter proposal is simply a draft that's still being reviewed. "We are early in the process and are far from making any decisions on whether the standards should be changed," he said. "This will be an open and transparent process that will provide Americans with many opportunities to offer their comments and thoughts."

Unfortunately, EPA's Clean Air Act review has gotten swept up into the opposition to the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the so-called cap-and-trade bill that passed the House and is awaiting Senate action. There are legitimate concerns over the impact of the limits on greenhouse gas emissions proposed in that bill — amped up by less legitimate complaints that climate change is a crock — but congressional action on that issue has nothing to do with EPA's Clean Air-mandated regulations.

By the way, along with the establishment of limits on emissions of heat-trapping pollutants, the cap-and-trade bill also includes initiatives that would be job creators, not killers, including provisions to

  • Promote renewable energy development, carbon capture and sequestration technologies, low-carbon fuels, clean electric vehicles and support investment in "smart grid" and electricity transmission infrastructure.
  • Fund strategies to increases energy efficiency, including retrofitting buildings, developing energy-efficient appliances and improving transportation efficiency.
  • Provide grants to universities and colleges that train students in clean energy technologies, green building programs, water and energy conservation and sustainable agriculture.

None of those proposals merits the level of reaction the bill has engendered, but the pattern of opposition to the very idea of cap-and-trade parallels what has transpired in response to the ongoing Clean Air revisions.

Don't misunderstand: Agriculture absolutely should not be burdened with regulations that would unfairly impact normal farm operations, such as running farm implements, harvesting and transporting crops or moving livestock at any point in the production cycle.

But there is only one reason why that is justified, and that is because food production is vital to national security, and thus deserves its own set of rules, similar to the way that military bases are exempted from certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act that would normally apply to both public and private land owners.

All other objections are misguided. EPA is not determined to "make agriculture obsolete." Even the most vocal critics admit that farming is not being targeted by the agency. But when EPA formulates standards for pollutants such as particulate matter, by law they must be national in scope and in practice must be aimed at the worst offenders.

Nor is small particulate pollution — or "dust," if you prefer — merely a natural occurrence that must be accepted the way we accept sun in summer and cold in winter. A significant percentage of the particulate matter metered in any location, rural or urban, is man-made. Having lived in Arizona during the go-go '90s, when Maricopa County contained three of the nation's top 10 fastest growing communities, I heard all the same arguments being made then about construction dust: You just have to live with it. But then new rules got passed, water trucks started showing up at every construction site and housing development project, and suddenly the dust problem receded.

That doesn't mean that farmers could or should be made to follow similar rules, but there are dust mitigation strategies for certain farm-related activities that are already being utilized in many operations, and those ought to be objectively explored.

But most importantly, the accusation that EPA isn't using sound science in evaluating its proposals is not only inaccurate but off-target strategically. If the long-term goal is to make sure agriculture stays viable. then the "bad science" argument is a bad choice, because it doesn't stand up to reality, and if the farm community bases its opposition to EPA on that argument, it jeopardizes the chances of prevailing.

For example: Consider the composition of EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the body that has been accused of providing the justification for EPA to "outlaw" agriculture. Here's a sampling of its members:

  • Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, Professor and the Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California and Director of the USC Institute for Global Health.
  • Dr. Joseph D. Brain, the Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • Dr. H. Christopher Frey, Professor of Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University.
  • Dr. Donna Kenski, director of data analysis at the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium.
  • Dr. Helen Suh MacIntosh, Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment and Environmental Chemistry at the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • Dr. Armistead (Ted) Russell, the Georgia Power Distinguished Professor and Coordinator of Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Dr. Kathleen C. Weathers, Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

There are plenty of additional scientists on other committees that advise EPA, such as the Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis, which includes a dozen PhDs, but the point is that this committee is not a group likely to forego peer-reviewed science. Whatever recommendations are proposed, however stringent they might appear to be, they won't be divorced from scientific scrutiny — not with the collective credentials noted above.

Finally, the idea that particulate pollution should be considered merely harmless background noise to the nation's commerce belies its demonstrated impact on public health.

Particle pollution contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets so small that they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems. Numerous medical studies have linked particulate pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis and increased respiratory problems, especially for children and older adults and people with heart or lung diseases.

In fact, EPA's mandatory cost-benefit analysis of Clean Air regulations, which was conducted by another of those committees packed with top scientists, determined that regulations enacted to control airborne particulate pollution are responsible for estimated reductions in mortality risk will total approximately $2 trillion dollars by 2020. That's nothing to sneeze at, pardon the egregious pun.

The bottom line is that all those engaged in farming need to be vigilant in making sure that unnecessary regulations don't cripple our national food production capabilities. But wherever possible, that should be done with government assistance to aid compliance, not by trying to carve out exemptions for agriculture on the basis of inaccurate or misleading accusations.

Farming is critical to our economic vitality, our national security, our foreign trade potential and to the well being of all Americans. That, and that alone, should be the basis for arguments against regulations affecting agriculture.