U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has decided not to set tougher limits on coarse particles in the air, the agency announced today in an effort to quell rumors of new dust regulations that raised a furor in farm country and nearly brought the Senate to a standstill earlier this month.
The agency is nearing the end of its usual five-year review of the national ambient air quality standards for particulate matter, which decide how much dust and soot makes the air unhealthy to breathe.
The review of the current standards, which date back to the Reagan administration, became a hot-button issue this year when they became stump speech material for Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of allowing red tape to proliferate. Critics pointed to business groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which told EPA that one option suggested by staffers would force many rural areas to tamp down the dust that is kicked up by cattle, tractors and trucks on unpaved roads.
When Jackson sends her recommendation to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, it won't include any change to the existing limits on coarse particles, she wrote in a letter to Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that was dated Friday and released today.
"It is important that a standard for particulate matter be protective of the health of the public," Jackson said. "Based on my consideration of the scientific record, analysis provided by EPA scientists and advice from the Clean Air Science Advisory [Committee], I am prepared to propose the retention -- with no revision -- of the current [coarse particle] standard."
The letter does not say whether Jackson plans to change the existing limit on fine particles, which mainly come from power plants, automotive tailpipes and factories. EPA scientists say the levels of fine particles in many areas of the United States are causing breathing problems, heart attacks and premature deaths because their small size allows them to penetrate deeply into the lungs.
Agriculture groups praised today's announcement on coarse particles, saying it should settle the "farm dust" issue.
If the standards were tightened, it could have required costly new control measures for rural areas, said Rick Krause, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. He said scientists have not found a strong link between health problems and exposure to coarse particles -- which are between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, compared to fine particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in size.
Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union, sided with EPA to say that the fears were overblown.
"Lately, there has been considerable anxiety within the farming community that EPA is going to regulate dust on farms," he said in a statement. "We hope this action finally puts to rest the misinformation regarding dust regulation and eases the minds of farmers and ranchers across the country."
Many environmental and public health groups are pushing EPA to come out with stricter limits on both fine and coarse particles to protect public health. But John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he did not necessarily oppose EPA's decision not to tighten the standards for coarse particles.
The final recommendations from agency staffers said Jackson would be justified in changing how the limits are calculated, or just leaving them alone.
"It's a permissible option for EPA to decline to revise a standard, if that's what the science supports," Walke said.
He added: "As to the merits of this decision, I'll just have to wait and see what they say and how they justify it."
A rulemaking on coarse particulates would not specify what sectors would be responsible for making reductions, but rather would set an overall limit for coarse particulate emissions. EPA and the states would then decide where emissions reductions could be achieved in an efficient and cost-effective way.
"That's what leads them to focus on vehicles and power plants and oil refineries, and not focus on farm dust and backyard barbecues," Walke said.
A 'myth' or a sign of an EPA 'gone wild'?
EPA rarely gives a sneak peak at one of its upcoming rules, but Jackson and other top officials had publicly insisted for months that they had no plan to crack down on farm dust.
They were put on the defensive by high-profile Republicans such as presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who slammed the dust regulations during a presidential debate in Florida last month.
"The EPA has gone wild," Cain said. "The fact that they have a regulation ... to regulate dust says that they've gone too far."
In an email today, an EPA spokesman said the agency "hopes that this action finally puts an end to the myth."
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) have introduced bills (H.R. 1633 and S. 1528) to stop EPA from updating the coarse particle limits for at least one year. The bills would bar EPA from curbing dust from logging roads, construction or agriculture unless the dust was found to be causing serious health problems.
Earlier this month, Johanns tried to attach his measure to an unrelated bill on Chinese exchange rates as it neared final passage on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used a rare procedural gambit to change the Senate's rules and avoid giving Johanns a vote, leaving Republicans incensed.
Johanns, a former Agriculture secretary, said last week that he wanted EPA to guarantee it would not regulate farm dust. Today, he welcomed EPA's announcement.
"EPA has finally provided what I've been asking for all along: unequivocal assurance that it won't attempt to regulate farm dust," he said. The senator said he would not press his amendment for now but would not "hesitate to press for a vote again if EPA returns to this misguided path."
But Noem, a rancher, seemed less convinced.
Noem said EPA's move did not lessen the need for congressional action, because it only guaranteed that EPA would not propose regulations for farm dust during this reconsideration of the rule, not that it would not do so sometime in the future.
"If the EPA has no intention of regulating farm dust, then they should support my legislation, which excludes farm dust managed at the state or local level from federal regulatory standards," she said.
Under the deadlines set by the Clean Air Act, a proposed update to the standards for both coarse and fine particles was due in February. Final standards are supposed to be released this month, but EPA does not face a court-ordered deadline.
Click here to read the letter.