The nearest Kansas air monitoring station to this southwest Kansas field is about 100 miles away in Dodge City. (Photo by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)
Farm dust has been all the rage this summer in the halls of Congress.
But the dust settled this week when the Environmental Protection Agency said an air quality standard on the books for almost 25 years will not be altered.
Now there's less urgency to enact the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, which was introduced to keep the EPA from setting more stringent air standards for coarse particulate matter that includes farm dust. Farm-state legislators had worried that the EPA had just such a plan in the works. (While many politicians have backed off, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said she’s still wary of the rhetoric coming from the EPA and will continue to pursue the legislation.)
Listen to Kansas Public Radio's Bryan Thompson report on the dust-up over farm dust.[swf file="BTdust.mp3"params="wmode=transparent"]
But the fact remains that an independent report suggested that the EPA consider lowering the coarse particulate standard.
Living in southwest Kansas, and traveling down gravel roads across the state, I can personally attest to the dust created by farming and ranching. I’ve washed my car more times in the last nine months then I probably have in the last seven years. But what, if anything, it might be doing to my health, I can’t quantify like car washes. And health is what the EPA says it’s always aiming for with air quality standards.
And that got me wondering about how the EPA is actually monitoring air quality. The same day the EPA said it wouldn’t lower the standard, I visited an air monitor in Kansas City, Kan., one of two in that metro area.
This air monitoring station in Kansas City, Kan., is one of 11 locations across the state monitoring coarse particulate matter. Only four stations are in rural farm country. (Photos by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)
With downtown Kansas City hidden behind the tree line, the air monitors sat inconspicuously behind a chain link fence, thatched with plastic. The smell of Gates’ BBQ was in the air as normal urban life played out around the site. The monitors themselves could be mistaken for an electrical unit, with a saucer sitting on top to collect the air.
Working with EPA guidelines, it’s up to the states to decide exactly where these mointors go. For instance, as the map at the bottom of this post shows, there are only two monitors in predominately agricultural western Kansas. The nearest state monitor to a southwest Kansas wheat field I recently visited is about 100 miles away.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Air Planning Chief Tom Gross told me the state would never place a monitor directly next to a farm field.
And the Midwest EPA office had this to say about many rural Kansas areas where there isn’t a monitor nearby: “Where air monitoring is not occurring, it is impossible to know with certainty, the nature of the air quality. One can make inferences about air quality based on the proximity of air pollution sources, weather and other parameters but these methods are far less certain than collecting the data by air monitoring using accepted scientific methods.”
So basically, in many areas we just don’t know exactly how much farm dust might be affecting us. And we’re not likely to find out.
Although the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the right to review air standards outside the mandated five-year review window, an extensive review process would be required. By 2016 who knows the kind of environment we’ll be living in.
Coarse particulate matter (PM10) monitoring stations in the EPA's Region 7