Lisa Jackson, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (John Flesher/AP )
Earlier this year, Republicans found what they saw as an ideal talking point to illustrate a federal bureaucracy gone batty.
The Environmental Protection Agency, they warned, was trying
to regulate something only God could control: the dust in the wind.
“Now, here comes my favorite of the crazy regulatory acts. The EPA is now proposing rules to regulate dust,” Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) said on the House floor. He said Texas is full of dusty roads: “The EPA is now saying you can be fined for driving home every night on your gravel road.”
There was just one flaw in this argument: It was not true.
The EPA’s new dust rule did not exist. It never did.
Still, the specter of this rule has spurred threebills to prevent it, one of which was approved Thursday by a House subcommittee. It sparked a late-night battle on the Senate floor. GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain cited it in a debate as a reason to eliminate the EPA.
The hubbub over this phantom rule — surely one of the most controversial regulations that never was — involved a slow-moving federal agency and a Republican Party with the EPA in its crosshairs.
“I do believe that the EPA does have the ability to change its mind,” said Rep. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.), the sponsor of the bill that was approved Thursday. The EPA has confirmed that it does not intend to strengthen standards on farm dust. But Noem is still pushing a bill to go further and weaken the EPA’s power to set such rules in the future.
“This EPA has been very hard on business in this country, and this EPA has been very hard on agriculture,” Noem said. “I think it’s time we pushed back.”
The origins of a fear
Farm dust — the stuff at the center of this story — contains things such as windblown dirt, bits of last year’s cornstalks and manure dried down to powder. It is an ancient fact of farm life.
By the EPA’s rules, it is also pollution.
The EPA lumps it in with soot from power plants as “coarse-particle pollution.” The agency limits how much of this can be in the air, because the particles can cause heart and lung damage.
Two states, Arizona and California, require some farmers to take dust-control measures: Together, their rules affect more than 7,800 farms. But last fall, an EPA advisory panel raised worries that more farmers could be affected. It recommended that the agency tighten standards, potentially leading to crackdowns elsewhere.
And so the dust fight began.
To actually change the rules for dust on farms, the EPA would have to formally propose a new rule. And in March, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said she was not likely to do that.
“We have no plans to do so,” Jackson said. But she couldn’t guarantee it. Jackson said she was still required to spend several more months in a formal review before offering ironclad assurances that farmers would not face new rules.
That wasn’t enough. In April, Noem introduced her bill and gathered 112 sponsors, including a handful of farm-state Democrats. A Senate bill gathered 26 sponsors, including two Democrats facing tough reelection fights in 2012.
Timing for a talking point
For Republicans, the issue emerged at a good time. The GOP-led House has passed a spate of bills intended to delay or alter new rules set by the EPA under President Obama. The subjects range from emissions from cement plants to runoff from farms and mine sites.
The GOP agenda was supported by many business and farm groups, which said surveys showed many small businesses felt overly burdened by new rules and costs imposed by the EPA.
“You’ve got an agency that has a far greater economic impact — by region, by size, by sector — on the overall economy than any other agency,” said R. Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
For Republicans the EPA’s new dust rule was an ideal talking point for this agenda, even though EPA had still not proposed any rule.
“We’ll stop excessive federal regulations that inhibit jobs in areas as varied as cement and farm dust,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told the Economic Club of Washington in September. Boehner’s deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post decrying “EPA’s proposed regulations” on subjects including farm dust.
On the House floor, other legislators sketched out an even more detailed picture.
“Say Bessie the cow kicks up too much dust running over to your pickup truck at feeding time,” warned Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.). “The EPA is going to fine you for Bessie’s misconduct.”
Spokesmen for Boehner, Poe and Carter — the lawmaker who sketched out worries about gravel roads — say all their bosses knew there was no proposed rule. They were speaking hypothetically, the spokesmen said, about the threat of a rule. Spokesmen for Cantor did not explain of his comments.
As the year went on, the nonexistent rule also turned up in the Republican presidential race.