FARMERS received an early Christmas present with the Environmental Protection Agency's Dec. 14 announcement that it would not pursue more stringent dust standards.
In response to a court order, EPA finalized an update to its national air quality standards for harmful fine particle pollution -- known as particulate matter (PM) 2.5 -- including soot, setting the annual health standard at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. By 2020, 99% of U.S. counties are projected to meet the revised health standard without taking any additional actions.
The announcement has no effect on the existing daily standards for fine particles or for PM10 coarse particles, which includes dust from farms and other sources, both of which remain unchanged.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) welcomed the "commonsense decision" not to change dust standards for rural America.
"Whether it is cattle kicking up dust in a feedlot in Larned, Kan., or wheat being harvested on a hot afternoon on the High Plains in June, dust is a naturally occurring event," Roberts said.
In 2011, an EPA report recommended doubling the current strictness of dust regulations but later reversed that decision.
A stricter PM standard would have caused most of cattle country, including the entire Midwest, West and Southwest, to be out of compliance or at the brink of non-compliance, according to National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) deputy environmental counsel Ashley McDonald.
"For now, 15 mph speed limits on dirt roads, paving dirt and gravel roads and a prohibition on harvesting or tilling during the day are not regulatory requirements in most states but could easily become a reality if EPA continues to regulate farm dust," she said.
McDonald added that NCBA is pleased that EPA decided to retain the current coarse PM standard and did not make a bad situation worse.
Under its current review of the dust standard, EPA proposed in June of this year to retain the coarse PM standard, and NCBA, state cattle producer associations and members submitted comments encouraging EPA to make that proposal final.
McDonald made it clear that if the PM standard had been tightened, it would have been virtually impossible for current agricultural operations to demonstrate compliance, which means they would be subject to fines of up to $37,500 per day under the Clean Air Act.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) said, "Despite EPA having taken more than a year, I'm glad agricultural producers finally have it in writing that an absurd agency recommendation to double down on farm dust has been rejected."
While the latest announcement is a welcome one, it does not prevent EPA from reviewing and revising dust regulations in the future. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to review the dust standard every five years for how effectively it protects public health.
Johanns and Roberts have co-sponsored legislation to permanently prevent the agency from regulating farm dust so farmers and ranchers would have long-term legal certainty.
S. 1328, the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, would stop EPA from regulating dust in rural America by preventing the agency from imposing more stringent dust standards for one year. It would also give states and localities the flexibility to address any rural dust issues before the federal government has the authority to do so.
McDonald added that until Congress passes legislation giving cattle producers permanent relief from dust regulations, NCBA will continue to fight EPA's dust standard.