EPA Backs Off Dust Standard

Are there enough data points yet to call it a trend? I think there are: the Environmental Protection Agency is now backing off a whole series of deeply unpopular Obama-era initiatives. This time it’s the idea of tightening the federal standard for coarse airborne particulates—better known as “dust”—from the current 150 micrograms per cubic meter to a figure somewhere between 65 and 85, depending on what assumptions are used. That change could have dealt a tough economic blow to businesses, notably farms and ranches, that kick up quantities of dirt in the ordinary course of operation. Unfortunately, the EPA—unable to resist the urge to lash out against its critics—is being less than candid about its latest turnabout.

The retreats have been coming steadily in recent months, since President Obama’s popularity ratings began to tank. In July, following protests from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and other lawmakers, the administration dropped a proposal that would have required lead-dust lab testing as part of even relatively minor renovations to older homes. Last month it scuttled costly new smog regulations. A couple of weeks ago it relaxed its so-called Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which was menacing the continued operation of power plants. And it remains under heavy pressure to scrap its ultra-expensive “Boiler MACT” rules, another utility nemesis.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has made it clear that she isn’t happy about some of these about-faces, and her staff spun the latest dust decision in remarkably graceless fashion, accusing critics of spreading “myths” and claiming the agency never had any intention of going after farm dust in the first place. Following the same line, Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones has now twice dismissed the issue as “the tea party-right’s favorite EPA conspiracy theory. Sadly, it’s not true.”

But the farmers and ranchers—and the many lawmakers who stepped up to their defense—weren’t imagining things, as this letter last July from 21 Senators (including a couple of Democrats), or this contemporaneous Reuters coverage, makes clear. Had the standard been lower, various metropolitan areas would have been knocked out of compliance, and although it’s conceivable states could have found a variety of ways to order curbs to dust-raising economic activity, farms and ranches are just too big a target to have been spared. And the issue caused direct political blowback to President Obama, who was irritably dismissive of a farmer’s concerns when asked about it at a “Town Hall” in the rural Midwest.

This, then, seems to be the new Obama administration compromise position on the EPA: they’ll hold off for now on saddling the economy with at least some potentially ruinous regulations—but they’ll make sure you know they’re not happy about having to take that stand.