The glacier of environmental regulation
By Ken Root
Editor’s note: This week, in a column he wrote several years ago (2008) about regulating “dust,” Ken Root re-examines the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency. The example today is the Clean Water Act, which was originally passed in 1972. Working upstream from rivers and lakes to small tributaries, the CWA has been used to steadily control more of the waters of the United States. The final piece, in this slow but steady progression, is the initial pathway of raindrops across fields and pastures on private land. Ken’s description of the process remains accurate unless congressional action stops Environmental Protection Agency from establishing total control.
A glacier moves because of its own weight. Once enough mass is created, the journey begins. Nothing is strong enough to resist its slow and relentless power. Agriculture is now in a tizzy about the pending regulations that may forever change life as we know it. Slowly, but surely, that is what will come to pass.
Dust is particulate pollution, therefore able to be regulated by the EPA. New rules on particulate matter have been issued by the agency. This is the latest indication that every substance and practice will eventually be addressed by a government that is dedicated to removing all health hazards from our society. This is not a political issue where one party favors and another opposes. It is an institutional objective that overwhelms all who stand against it.
In the second term of Bill Clinton, when Vice President Al Gore was being groomed for a run at the presidency, AgriTalk received an offer to interview Gore at the White House. With U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman running light interference, we sat down and talked with Gore about his environmental views. As you may remember, he was considered an “environmental wacko” by rural America because of his radical views on changing the use of fertilizer and pesticides, as well as controlling runoff and reducing greenhouse gasses. He may not have invented the Internet, but he popularized “global warming” and its detrimental effects on our planet.
In the live interview, he did not make any wild statements about the negative effects of farming on the environment, but he continually reinforced his view that agriculture must come to the table and be a part of the solution to the problem of environmental degradation.
Now we move forward eight years to the second term of the Republican who beat him and who has taken a very conservative track. Even in this business friendly administration, the EPA has just finalized a particulate rule that ends agriculture’s exemption from compliance with regulation. This step by EPA may be small and simple with a minimal impact, but it is clearly a measurable advance toward regulation of anything that is determined to be a health hazard.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, is as agitated over the EPA’s “dust” provision as a sane person can be. “Do you think I can say ‘Wind, don’t blow,’ like I’m God?” bellowed the senator in a recent call with reporters. Grassley has invited the EPA administrator, Steven Johnson, to Iowa to watch the dust blow off the combines during soybean harvest, with the intent of humiliating him. Johnson may have made the visit by the time you read this, but it won’t really matter, although we’ll get some good photos and audio from it. Johnson is a long timer in the EPA and was in the Office of Pesticide Programs in the 1980s when the department, under a Republican administration, came forth with the first regulations on pesticide and gasoline containment at the retail level. That action had been set in motion by the Clean Water Act and other legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, and slowly reached down to the last “point source” of pollution. The exact same process is continuing today, just in different areas.
Over time, the EPA, in concert with the Food and Drug Administration, may be proven to be the most persistent agent of change in the history of our society. The two have become the instruments used in the noble but expensive quest to eliminate all identifiable risks to human health.
The particulate matter regulations are aimed at urban areas according to spokespersons for the agency, who also say that dust is not a focus since the vast majority of rural areas are not part of the “non-attainment” regions under the Clean Air Act. Still, the exemption that agriculture held as its shield against future regulation has been surrendered.
Watch for the first lawsuits to come from residents who live beside graveled roads. The dust blowing off the roads may be grounds (literally) for suits that would force the county to pave them. The next step could be dust from fieldwork or livestock operations. It may be 10 years or 30 years, but there will be change because of the slow but sure intrusiveness of the rules.
Isn’t it ironic that the only thing that will stop a glacier of ice is global warming?
What will stop a glacier of regulation?
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.