As they begin the fall harvest, wary farmers are watching a federal debate over whether to clamp down on one of rural life's constant companions — the dust clouds that farm machinery kick up in fields and along unpaved roads.
Farming groups have urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to retain its current standards for dust, soot and other microscopic particles, arguing that tighter restrictions would be unworkable and that dust isn't a real pollutant.
Grain farmer Charles Schmitt, who farms about 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans near the southwestern Indiana town of Haubstadt, called the possibility of tougher rules on dust "ridiculous."
The 59-year-old, who's farmed for more than four decades, said there's little farmers can do to reduce dust, especially after a dry summer like this year's that left his fields parched.
"Mother Nature has more to do with it than we do — there's going to be dust and dirt no matter what," Schmitt said.
The EPA is reviewing its airborne pollutant standards, as required every five years under the Clean Air Act. It's looking both at its standards for tiny particles of industrial pollution, and slightly larger particles called "coarse particulate matter" that include dust.
Supporters of tougher restrictions said they're needed to help clear the air of tiny grains that can lodge deep in the lungs, worsening heart and respiratory problems.
But farming and livestock groups and some lawmakers call those risks overstated. They argue that tighter rules could hurt rural areas, which they fear might exceed new limits and be required to implement plans to reduce dust.
In July, nearly two dozen senators from farm states urged EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a joint letter to keep in place the current particulate standards, approved in 2006.
Tougher standards, their letter warned, would result in "extremely burdensome" dust control measures to bring regions into compliance and "could slow economic development and impose significant cost to farmers and businesses."
The American Lung Association has urged the EPA to adopt stricter limits. The group maintains that officials could reduce dust, from paving gravel roads to encouraging farmers to grow more of their crops using no-till approaches that reduce the need for tractor work.
Janice Nolen, the group's assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy, said the agricultural industry's claims mirror those other industries raised when they faced EPA restrictions.
"Every industry that sees that they're going to have to clean up have had the same concerns and we've seen time and again where they were able to figure out a solution," she said.
Nolen said it's not just loose soil that blows around and off farms — the particles also include diesel exhaust from farm machinery, animal waste and herbicides and insecticides.
The EPA's scientific advisers told the agency this summer that the agency could better protect public health by replacing the existing standard of 150 micrograms of coarse particles per cubic meter with a standard between 65 and 85 micrograms per cubic meter.
The agency is expected to release a final document next month spelling out its options for revising the standards. The EPA plans to announce any proposed changes in February, and will likely approve a final updated rule by October 2011. The agency would then determine which areas of the nation don't meet those new standards.
The EPA said in a statement that it is "committed to issuing air quality standards for particle pollution that are scientifically sound."
But the American Farm Bureau Federation contends there's no scientific evidence supporting a need for tighter regulations on dust and that farm dust is different from the particles released by industry.
Rick Krause, the group's senior director of congressional relations, said there's no effective and economical way for farmers to reduce dust levels. He said it's wrong to lump farm dust in with industrial pollution and car fumes.
Tamara Thies, chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said tougher rules would penalize agricultural areas, particularly those in more arid regions where dust is a nearly constant presence.
"When you get out into the agricultural areas of this country what you have is dust — dust is a part of doing business. And most of rural dust is just dust," she said.
Oklahoma cattle rancher Jason Hitch, who owns and operates his family's 12,000-acre ranch near the Panhandle town of Guymon with his brother Chris, said dust permeates everything in the wind-swept, semiarid region where many roads are packed dirt. It gets in his eyes, mouth and nose, but Hitch said he's so accustomed to it he hardly notices.
Hitch Ranch, a fifth-generation operation that also includes hogs and crops, is buffeted by relentless winds and gets only about 16 inches of precipitation a year.
Hitch said it would be prohibitively expensive and impractical for his workers, for example, to dampen the soil while farming to reduce dust levels. Hitch thinks federal officials just don't understand life on the Great Plains.
"We spend a lot of time cussing and discussing what goes on in Washington and what they come up with. We don't feel like they're very much in touch with production agriculture," he said.
Copyright 2010 AP News