WASHINGTON -- Democrats mocked a GOP push to bar tougher regulation of "farm dust" Tuesday, saying the idea that the federal government even wants to do that is a "fantasy," and that Congress might as well prohibit the regulation of "fairy dust."
At issue was a measure sponsored by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), dubbed the "Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011," that she and other backers say will prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from slapping onerous new burdens on farmers.
But Democrats argue that the EPA has no plans to regulate farm dust -- a position that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson publicly reaffirmed last week -- and that the proposal is just the latest push in the House GOP's ongoing war on environmental regulations.
"This isn't just nonsense, it's pure fantasy," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee where the bill was considered.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) went further, saying that since the problem being addressed was fictional, perhaps the committee should also combat the spread of pixie dust.
"There is no plan to regulate farm dust anymore than there is to regulate fairy dust," Markey said in his opening statement. "There is no attempt to accomplish that goal," he said, comparing the proposed measure to a bill written in the 1990s to combat the phony problem spread in a then-rampant urban myth that the Post Office intended to tax email messages.
"This bill should be relegated to the dustbin of similar urgent urban legends," Markey said, before demanding, tongue in cheek, that EPA assistant administrator Regina McCarthy forswear regulation of fairy dust.
"Since I am sure that many little girls all over America care about this deeply, can you commit to me that EPA will never try to regulate fairy dust, or pixie dust, because, if not, we may just want to amend the legislation in order to protect us against the threat which could be posed by EPA or other regulatory agencies seeking to move into other fictional areas, such as the legislation which is being considered here?" he asked.
"After we look at the complete scientific review, yes," McCarthy joked back.
But Republicans insisted the EPA's desire to regulate farm dust was real. "In my home state of South Dakota, this is a huge concern for farmers, ranchers, and small business owners who are struggling to stay afloat in an already stressed economy," Noem said. "One of the most overwhelming concerns I hear about from farmers and ranchers back home is the overbearing regulations coming out of the EPA, including the regulation of farm dust. Their concern is not unwarranted."
Despite their light-hearted moment, the Democrats and McCarthy said that while the intent of the bill might be to head off something that is not proposed, the language of the measure could do dramatic harm.
The problem with the bill, they said, is that it does not actually target farm dust. Its language instead bars the EPA from regulating "nuisance dust," which is defined as a range of things including "windblown dust" and particulate matter that is "generated from natural sources, unpaved roads, agricultural activities, earth moving, or other activities typically conducted in rural areas."
The Democrats argued that about 70 percent of the nation's power plants are in rural areas, and the pollution they produce would have to be considered an activity "typically conducted in rural areas." They also noted that all particulate matter is "windblown dust," whether it comes from a diesel truck exhaust or an open mine.
If the bill became law, Democrats argued that such vague language could effectively block the EPA from enforcing any rules on particulate pollution first instituted in the Reagan administration.
"I would say in essence you are actually gutting the Clean Air Act," McCarthy told Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, who wondered why the EPA would not want to back the measure if only to provide some "certainty" to worried farmers.
McCarthy also explained repeatedly that the EPA does not regulate farm dust -- it sets standards for how much particulate matter can be in the air, and leaves it up to states to decide how to deal with problems.
And in fact, there are few places in the country the EPA considers to be in "non-attainment" of the particulate pollution standards -- McCarthy specified 41 counties. Farm dust is deemed to be a part of the air quality problem by local officials in even fewer locations, but areas of Arizona and the arid San Joaquin Valley in California are among them.
What farmers there and elsewhere are fearful of is that the EPA could toughen the current particulate standards, which are evaluated every five years. Recently, a panel of scientists recommended that the EPA should consider a tougher rule on particulates, better known as soot. But EPA boss Jackson decided that the agency would not.
To bolster the case that a law needs to be passed to prevent the unproposed new standards, Republicans brought as a witness Kevin Rogers, an Arizona farmer who runs afoul of the current, 24-year-old benchmarks.
"My farm in Arizona lies in one of the worst areas for dust in the nation," Rogers said in his testimony. "Within the past couple of months, four huge, naturally occurring dust clouds have risen from the desert and swept over the Phoenix and Tucson areas."
That leaves him having to spend extra time and money combating dust, although farms are deemed to contribute only about 3 percent of the dust problem, he said. The bill would ease restrictions on people like him.
Democrats seemed willing to consider options that would specifically address farmers, but were concerned the bill was aimed more at some of the other witnesses, including representatives from the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, and the Coarse Particulate Matter Coalition -- none of whom have much to do with farms.
Waxman noted that a member of the Coarse Particulate Matter Coalition includes one of the largest copper mining operations in the nation. Another member is the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
"The bill's sponsors say the bill is narrowly targeted to help farmers," Waxman argued in his opening statement. "In fact the bill is drafted broadly and has sweeping anti-environmental effects."
He added that the bill was "so broadly worded it could invalidate EPA's existing standard for both fine and coarse particulates."
Republicans did not argue that the bill could have broader impact than just helping farmers, although Noem insisted its title made clear its intent.
The prepared testimony of witnesses and statements of lawmakers at the hearing can be found here.