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Which of the following is true?

a) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to regulate cigar smoke
b) The EPA plans to regulate spilled milk
c) The EPA plans to regulate peeing in the shower
d) The EPA plans to regulate farm dust

Painting a picture of how the House majority views the agency is Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL):

“We don’t trust EPA. We know they’ll come back. We know they’ll go after dust. … That’s why we have this bill,” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said. “I’m here for my open-pit mines in Illinois, that we don’t shut them down. … For us, it’s about jobs and an overzealous EPA,” he said.

If you said none of the above, you’re the big winner.  What the House Majority calls “farm dust” is particulate matter (PM)- tiny particles only a few microns in diameter created from coal combustion, mining, and other large industrial processes.  Exposure can lead to serious health problems including decreased lung function, increased hospital admissions for heart disease, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

The Clean Air Act, passed 40 years ago, grants EPA the authority to protect us from these public health dangers.  The law requires EPA to review the science every five years to make sure it conforms to the most current evidence available.  This scientific evidence compelled the EPA to set its first standard for the slightly larger kind of PM back in 1987- nearly a quarter century ago.  Since then, after each review, the EPA has altered this standard exactly zero times.  In 2006, the Bush Administration unsuccessfully attempted to weaken the standard and this year the Obama Administration has repeatedly said they have no intention of proposing any changes.

Despite a promised Presidential veto, the House of Representatives voted today to pass HR 1633, the “Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011”.  While pollution from PM poses serious public health risks, there is no such thing as farm dust for purposes of the Clean Air Act.  Nor is there such thing as farm dust for the purposes of HR 1633; the only place those words appear in the bill is in the title.  Farm dust sounds like nothing more than tiny harmless grains of common dirt.  Since the movement toward new regulations for either dirt or PM is just fantasy, Democrats have mocked this bill as preventing regulation of pixie dust. HR 1633 instead talks about “nuisance dust”.  Nuisance dust is PM that is:

“…generated from natural sources, unpaved roads, agricultural activities, earth moving, or other activities typically conducted in rural areas”

So, this is not just a semantic argument over whether one characterizes dust as a nuisance, pixie, or indigenous to farms.  This is an argument over the Bingham Canyon mine in Utah.  The largest copper mine in the world, owned by Kennecott Copper, Bingham Canyon spews out particulate matter pollution that contaminates the air around Salt Lake City.  HR 1633 creates a loophole for Kennecott’s particulates.  This, of course, does not make Salt Lake City’s air any cleaner. 

Oddly, this bill, while seemingly absolving Utah from onerous regulation, actually places an enormous burden on the state.  Because the mine continues to pollute, Salt Lake City’s air remains out of attainment for certain kinds of PM.  Kennecott now wants to expand its operations.  And Utah is still responsible for developing a plan to remove enough of the particulates to keep the air breathable.  Obviously, the Bingham Canyon mine is the low hanging fruit. But, if Utah is no longer allowed to pick from Bingham’s fruit in order to reach the appropriate PM levels, the reductions have to come from somewhere.  Acheiving these reductions could likely result in the very kind of overzealous regulation the bill’s supporters fear.