It was the kind of question that any politician who opposes big government would love to field during a GOP presidential debate.
"My question is, if you were forced to eliminate one department from the federal government, which one would you eliminate and why?" asked a man from Arlington, Va., via YouTube during the Sept. 22 debate in Orlando.
A moderator chose metro Atlantan Herman Cain to answer it, and to the delight of the audience, he turned his hypothetical ax on a favorite target of big government foes: the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Now, I know that makes some people nervous, but the EPA has gone wild. The fact that they have a regulation that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2012, to regulate dust says that they've gone too far," Cain replied.
Dust? The EPA will start regulating dust in January?
We contacted the Cain camp for evidence, but they didn’t reply. Fortunately, the EPA posted its reports on the issue online. Factcheck.org, a fact-checking operation similar to PolitiFact, looked into Cain’s comment as well.
We found that the EPA has long regulated a category of air pollution called "particulate matter," which includes dust. There’s no new regulation scheduled for Jan. 1, 2012.
Particle pollution is a floating mix of solid particles and liquid droplets. Sometimes, the particles are visible, like smoke from a power plant, haze, or the dust that Cain mentioned. Other times, they’re so small they’re invisible to the naked eye.
These particulates can be made up of any number of chemicals, and can come from a variety of sources such as smokestacks, fires or construction sites.
A growing body of scientific evidence links particle pollution to a variety of health problems, including respiratory issues, lung disease, heart problems and even higher death rates, according to multiple independent reviews of the scientific literature as well as the EPA.
A small number of studies have even linked naturally occurring dust storms to a rise in trips to the emergency room for cardiovascular problems, according to an EPA review of scientific studies.
The EPA has regulated this form of air pollution since 1971 under the Clean Air Act, and requires air monitors in areas with populations greater than 100,000, according to state and federal documents. But it does not specifically single out farm dust for regulation.
Since states have to comply with the regulations or risk losing federal money, they may institute rules for farm dust to get into compliance with the law, a lobbyist for the farm industry and news accounts confirm.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA reviews its particle pollution standards every five years. And that’s where the current dust-up over dust began.
The EPA released its most recent policy assessment in April. It concludes that based on the newest research, it’s worthwhile to consider tightening some standards on larger or "coarse" particulates. This category includes dust from landfills, construction sites, agriculture and industrial sources such as steel mills.
The agriculture industry and other groups objected, saying this suggestion doesn’t make sense for rural areas, where tractors and pickups kick up naturally occurring dirt in the fields or on unpaved roads.
But both the EPA and regulation opponents agree that no regulation is in the pipeline, and it’s certainly not coming Jan. 1.
Factcheck.org’s Sept. 23 story on the debate noted that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture in March that it was a "mischaracterization" that the EPA is trying to "expand regulation of dust from farms."
Indeed, the EPA has not formally submitted new regulations for review, an agency spokeswoman told PolitiFact Georgia. Jackson said she would make a decision on whether to tighten the rules in July, according to a Reuters news story, but she has yet to do so.
Even if the EPA were to submit such regulations today, it could take a year or so for them to go into effect, said Richard Krause, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. The EPA would have to make any proposal available for public review and comment, a process that could take some months.
So to sum up:
The EPA has been regulating large particulate matter, including dust, for four decades, but does not single out farm dust or require monitoring in more rural areas.
EPA staffers and scientists concluded after an assessment of the most recent science that it’s worthwhile to consider tightening current regulations, but the EPA has not formally proposed any regulation, and even if they did so today, it could take a while for it to go into effect.
So, Cain does have a point. The EPA does regulate dust under the Clean Air Act. But Cain’s language was very specific, and now that the dust has settled in the wake of the Republican debate, it’s clear his specifics were incorrect.
Dust is regulated, but not at all in the way that Cain described. We therefore rate his statement False.
Fox Nation, "Cain Says Kill EPA: 'They're Trying to Eliminate Dust!'," Sept. 22, 2011
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter," December 2009
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Policy Assessment for the Review of the Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards," April 2011
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM10," March 10, 2011 www.epa.gov/region8/agriculture/PM10OverviewForAgIndustryMtg10Mar2011.pdf
U.S. Government Printing Office, Clean Air Act, 2008 http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=browse_usc&docid=Cite:+42USC7509
Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, "Health effects of fine particulate air pollution: Lines that connect," June 2006
American Heart Association, Circulation, AHA Scientific Statement, Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease, April 5, 2004
Reuters, "EPA chief says will decide in July on U.S. dust rule," April 19, 2011
Agweek, "EPA sets foundation for unprecedented dust regulation," July 13, 2010
Email interview, Betsaida Alcantara, press secretary, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sept. 28, 2011
Telephone interview, Richard Krause, senior director of congressional relations, American Farm Bureau Federation, Sept. 28, 2011
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