Braley, Boswell, Loebsack vote with House Republicans on farm dust bill

Some bills are designed to solve real problems, some bills are designed to create the appearance of solving real problems, and some bills are designed to solve non-existent problems. The U.S. House passed that third kind of bill yesterday, seeking to block rules the Environmental Protection Agency has not even proposed.

Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02), and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) were among the 33 Democrats who voted with Republicans to pass the H.R. 1633, the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011. The Iowa Democrats weren’t all equally supportive during the floor debate, however.

If they gave out awards for Orwellian bill titles, the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011 would be a contender. The most important thing to know about this bill is that the government hasn’t proposed any new regulations on farm dust. Although coarse particulate matter from farm machinery can cause respiratory problems, and an EPA advisory panel recommended that the agency consider new rules on coarse particulates from farms, the Obama administration has not taken any action in this area. In March of this year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she was not planning to propose any new farm dust rules. Jackson confirmed in an October letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow that

“based on my consideration of the scientific record, analysis provided by EPA scientists and advice from the Clean Air Science Advisory Council, I am prepared to propose the retention – with no revision – of the current PM10 [coarse particulate matter] standard and form when it is sent to the White House for interagency review.”

Jackson has also testified in Congress that the EPA does not intend to regulate farm dust. Still, Republican politicians and farm lobby representatives continue to raise concerns about alleged EPA plans to impose new burdens on farmers. Many Democrats from agricultural states have jumped on the bandwagon. The 121 co-sponsors of H.R. 1633 include Iowa Democrat Boswell as well as Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05).

Boswell was also among the Democrats who voted lockstep with House Republicans during the floor debate on the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act. Not only was he part of the 268 to 150 majority on final passage, Boswell opposed every Democratic amendment offered to weaken the bill and the motion to recommit with instructions (typically the last chance to kill legislation before the final vote). All five Democratic amendments failed in roll call votes yesterday.

Although Braley voted for final passage of H.R. 1633, he appeared to recognize that coarse particulate matter can pose significant health problems. He supported four out of the five Democratic amendments as well as the motion to recommit this bill (roll call). Pete Kasperowicz summarized the failed amendments for The Hill:

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), to allow EPA to continue enforcing fine particulate water standards, and allow EPA to regulate nuisance dust anywhere. Rejected 150-255.

Delegate Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), to allow EPA to regulate nuisance dust if EPA determines state, local or tribal laws are not sufficient to protect public health. Rejected 159-250.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), to change the definition of nuisance dust to exclude particulate matter containing arsenic or other heavy metals that are harmful to human health. Rejected 165-249.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), to alter the definition of nuisance dust to exclude particulate matter produced from mining activities. Rejected 158-257.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), to require EPA to report to Congress on the increase or decrease in the number of jobs as a result of the bill. Rejected 170-247.

Bobby Rush’s proposal to allow regulation of nuisance dust was the only amendment Braley opposed.

Loebsack’s behavior yesterday suggests that he was not as committed to H.R. 1633 as Boswell but was more supportive of the bill’s goals than Braley. Like House Republicans, Loebsack opposed the Rush, Waxman, and Green amendments. On the other hand, he voted with most of the House Democrats for the Christensen and Markey amendments, as well as the motion to recommit. Loebsack voted last week for a different bill designed to undercut government regulations on small businesses, but earlier this year he rejected House GOP efforts to block coal ash rules, regulations of cement plants and federal enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

One could argue that the House vote for H.R. 1633 is harmless, because 1) the EPA wasn’t planning to regulate farm dust anyway; 2) the bill will never clear the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate; and 3) the White House opposes the legislation. Consequently, this bill will never become law.

I disagree for several reasons. Validating unfounded fears of government regulation bolsters conservative ideology about “big government.” Democrats should not help Republicans convince the agricultural community that federal bureaucrats are out to get them. Josh Svaty is a senior adviser to the EPA regional administrator for Region 7, which includes Iowa. He recently discussed widespread misunderstandings about the EPA’s work (emphasis added):

There’s all sorts of rumors floating around and sometimes it almost seems like they’re perpetuated just to keep people in a semi-state of fear. But a lot of things are talked about, ag dust, which I mentioned, ag dust is one that’s talked about all the time within the farm community and that of course is a part of the Clean Air Act and people are always afraid that we’re going to start regulating dust and the first thing I have to tell them is that we’ve actually been regulating dust.  Dust is a criteria pollutant and what matters is the size of dust and the level at which we regulate it.  And so you try to explain to the farm community that though we do regulate dust, we really don’t regulate it at a level that it would ever register within the ag community and a lot of them I think are concerned that, oh the dust that I kick up on gravel roads or the dust coming out of the back of my combine is going to cause a problem and genuinely, it really isn’t.  Usually it’s far too [coarse] to even be classified or the levels are so low that they wouldn’t ever meet a threshold.  So dust is a good example [of] what we talk to people about.

The White House policy statement on H.R. 1633 provides another compelling reason to oppose this legislation:

This ambiguously written bill would create high levels of regulatory uncertainty regarding emission control requirements that have been in place for years. Specifically, the bill’s exclusion from the entire CAA of a new class of air pollutants called “nuisance dust” (an imprecise and scientifically-undefined term) could be used to roll back existing public health protection limiting pollution from mining operations, industrial activities, and possibly other sources. The bill also raises serious issues about whether EPA could continue to implement the existing health-based fine and coarse particle programs, which play a vital, ongoing role in preventing adverse health effects of air pollution including premature deaths, childhood asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. […]

This Administration remains committed to commonsense approaches to improving air quality across the country and preserving the competitiveness of every economic sector. Because H.R. 1633 is not only unnecessary, but also could have significant adverse public health consequences, the Administration strongly opposes the bill.

John Walke developed that argument further in this post for the Natural Resources Defense Council staff blog (emphasis in original):

What do these bills do? These bills attack clean air standards for soot pollution that EPA has not even proposed, much less adopted. The legislation would prohibit EPA from reviewing air quality standards for so-called “coarse particle pollution” or PM10, often known as soot. (The particles are called “PM10” because they are microscopic particles that measure between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter – no more than seven times smaller than the diameter of one human hair.) The bills prevent EPA even from examining new science or proposing new standards for soot pollution. Even if EPA and independent scientists found that current levels of soot pollution from any and all polluters were dangerous to our health or our children’s health, the dirty soot bills would prevent the agency from setting standards to protect Americans. In doing so, the legislation would expose our families to the dangerous health impacts from this pollution.

Revealingly, the governing legal prohibition in the bills does not even mention agricultural operations or farm dust, stating:

[EPA] may not propose, finalize, implement, or enforce any regulation revising the national primary ambient air quality standard or the national secondary ambient air quality standard applicable to particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter greater than 2.5 micrometers under section 109 of the Clean Air Act.

This language plainly blocks proposal, finalization, implementation, or enforcement of any updated health standards for soot pollution regardless of whether that pollution comes from power plants or incinerators or oil refineries or chemical plants.

Calling this legislation the “Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011” is like characterizing legislation to block health-based standards for smog pollution as the “Boy Scout Bonfire Regulation Prevention Act of 2011,” when EPA does not and will not limit smog-forming pollution from Boy Scouts bonfires. When the process of merely identifying unhealthy levels of smog pollution does not impose limits on any entity. And when the biggest emitters of smog-forming pollution are coal-burning power plants, oil refineries and other large industrial polluters – corporate entities that the bill would shield from cleaning up pollution that is hazardous.

Representative Henry Waxman warned yesterday that the bill “is not really about farms at all […] [Its] real effect is to exempt industrial mining operations and other large industries from regulation under the Clean Air Act, and it threatens to overturn the particulate pollution standards that protect families in both rural and urban communities.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

P.S. Senator Chuck Grassley is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the farm dust bill (pdf).

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