EPA May Regulate Rural Dust

Residents of Iowa, other Midwestern states, and Western states are all familiar with dust. Dust is a common byproduct of unpaved roads and wind blowing over bare fields. Dust can also be generated in tremendous clouds when combines comb through ripe fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, and milo. Western residents are familiar with dust as much of the ground is simply not vegetated and generates dust any time the wind blows or livestock walk across the plains.

Every five years the EPA must review the current scientific research relating to criteria pollutants under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) of the Clean Air Act to consider changes. What most people call “dust,” the EPA calls “particulate matter” or “PM.” Every five years the EPA can be counted on to reduce the amount of particulate matter that can be allowed in a cubic meter of air. The next five-year review is currently underway and there is evidence that the EPA is considering taking steps to clamp down on the Western and Midwestern propensity to generate dust. In the Policy Assessment for the Review of the Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standard: Second External Review Draft, the EPA staff concluded that depending on the emphasis placed on the evidence and uncertainties, the Administrator would be justified in either retaining the current PM10 NAAQS of 150 ?g/m³, or in revising it to make it more stringent.

Members of the United States Senate, led by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa have recently issued a letter calling on the Administrator of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, to use “common sense” on future regulations on dust, and reminding her of the administration’s focus on rural America and the negative impact such regulations could have on Main Street.

Of course, common sense has never played a role in environmental regulations, so it is not likely that this request will find favor with the EPA. Still, there are immense policy considerations that must be weighed if the rural areas of the Western and Midwestern states are going to be forced to comply with these standards. As an example, how do you draft air permits and regulations to govern dust blowing across farm fields? Which field is deemed to be responsible? Will rural impoverished areas be forced to lay asphalt or concrete over millions of miles of roadbeds and trails? Can the logging industry provide enough tree sap to supply rural counties with enough dust suppressant to keep the dust off of dirt roads? This move would come at a time that rural areas are actually tearing up their asphalt roads because they cannot afford to maintain them. South Dakota ground up 100 miles of roads to gravel in 2009 alone. http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748704913304575370950363737746.html Much of the desire to eliminate paved roads stems from the high cost of the petroleum used to make asphalt. It would be ironic indeed if the EPA’s actions on particulate matter forced rural counties to feed the continued need to refine oil.

Iowa has 114,740 miles of roads. If the national average of 50% roads being unpaved is applied to this figure, then there are about 70,000 miles of unpaved roads in Iowa. (no firm data was found). At $75,000 per mile this would cost more than 5 billion dollars in initial capital, and that is just for one Midwestern state.

This calculation does not address dust generation by combining and livestock operations. I am at a loss as to what sorts of technology livestock operators would have to employ to keep their cattle from kicking up dust as they walked across fields. Perhaps the EPA would require a tiny portable sprayer to mount on the back of each cow. I also suppose it would be possible to design and build giant portable bag houses (basically semi-trailer sized vacuum cleaners) to run along combines as they removed crops from the fields, but that does not strike me as a very economical approach. First, it would require a capital outlay of at least $100,000 per combine (taking the $50,000 cost of a small baghouse plus $50,000 for a bare tractor chassis). It would also double the labor requirements as another farmer would be required to drive alongside the combine in order to try to collect the errant dust.

While rural dust is a real issue for those who live near unpaved dirt or gravel roads or for drivers passing by ongoing field operations, it seems that the local government level ought to be the place for these issues to be resolved, as they have been for decades. It is common for property owners to request dust suppressant on roads in front of their homes. I just don’t know that the heavy regulatory hand of D.C. is the appropriate way to deal with this issue.

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About James Pray

Attorney with BrownWinick Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa.
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