December 5, 2011
Since the new Congress began in January, a record number of votes have been taken in attempts to weaken environmental regulations. According to a useful database maintained by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the U.S. House of Representatives has voted 170 times since the beginning of the year to strip key environmental and public health protections from the law. This number does not include—not yet, anyway—a vote on the legal authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate particulate matter (PM) in rural areas under the Clean Air Act. That will soon change, however, as the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011 (H.R. 1633/S. 1528) makes its way to the House floor. The bill defines a new category of PM—one established without scientific rationale—and effectively exempts all PM within that category from EPA regulation. If passed, this bill could have serious consequences for the health of rural communities, so CLF has been tracking the legislation closely. We recently sent a letter to Congress that outlined the scientific literature on exposure to PM in rural areas. The bill—and our letter—took center stage recently at a meeting of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The legislation would create a new category of PM called “nuisance dust.” According to the bill, nuisance dust includes all PM that:
(1) is generated primarily from natural sources, unpaved roads, agricultural activities, earth moving, or other activities typically conducted in rural areas; (2) consists primarily of soil, other natural or biological materials, or some combination thereof; and (3) is not emitted directly into the ambient air from combustion, such as exhaust from combustion engines and emissions from stationary combustion processes.
This definition includes PM released by crop and food animal production (“agricultural activities”) that consists primarily of animal waste, microorganisms and the toxins they produce, allergens, or other “natural or biological materials,” hazards that have been associated with a range of adverse health effects. If the bill becomes law, however, they would be exempt from EPA regulation except under conditions that are virtually impossible—by design—for EPA to meet. It is noteworthy that the relationship between “farm dust” and “nuisance dust” is unclear, as both terms were invented by politicians, not by scientists. Republicans have called their legislation the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, but the text of the bill refers to “nuisance dust.” Some have noted that even non-farm PM found in rural areas, including particulate matter from mining operations, could count as “nuisance dust” and thus be exempted from regulation as well.
Republicans have pushed this legislation despite the fact that EPA does not actively regulate farm dust now and despite unequivocal and repeated statements by the agency that it has no plans to do so. These facts have been seized on by opponents, who say that in making much ado about farm dust, Republicans have been making much ado about nothing. Nevertheless, farm dust has persisted as an issue on the national stage—a small stage perhaps, but a stage nonetheless.
CLF is concerned because the legislation enacts a permanent exemption of rural PM from EPA regulation—regardless of current or future scientific knowledge of the health effects caused by rural PM exposure, and regardless of what EPA scientists and policymakers may find to be necessary in the future. This could have grave consequences for the health of rural populations. In our letter to Congress, we stated:
…the legislation does not account for current or future knowledge of health risks posed by rural PM exposure, and rather enacts a permanent exemption of rural PM from CAA regulation. This approach is not supported by the scientific evidence or good professional judgment, and is not scientifically defensible.
On Wednesday, the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives met to “mark up” the legislation. (During a mark up, legislation is reviewed and amended by members before the committee votes on reporting the bill to the full House.) While we were disappointed (but not surprised) that the Committee voted overwhelmingly to report the bill favorably, we were heartened to see Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) read from CLF’s letter as the Committee debated the legislation. Rep. Eshoo once chaired the Board of Directors of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in California, and knows better than most the importance of a robust Clean Air Act to public health. Rep. Eshoo implored her colleagues who support the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act to follow the science instead. “I think that we have an obligation to pay heed to the scientists in our country. This is not some rump group,” she said. “This [our letter] is from the John[s] Hopkins Center [for a Livable Future] and the scientists there.” We have excerpted the portion of her statement that includes CLF’s letter [2:05 minutes total length].
Fortunately, there are still a number of hurdles the legislation must clear before it becomes law. Now that Energy and Commerce has reported the bill favorably, it goes to the House Rules Committee, a powerful body that dictates when and how a bill will come to the House floor for a vote. The Rules Committee is scheduled to take up the bill tomorrow at 3:00pm. Meanwhile, in the upper chamber, Senate Republicans have inserted the legislation in their jobs bill, the so-called Jobs Through Growth Act. The prospects for passage in a Democratic-majority Senate are unclear. If the farm dust legislation passes both chambers, President Obama will have the option of vetoing it. CLF will continue to track the legislation—and hopefully see it defeated.