House OKs ban on rural dust limits

WASHINGTON -- The House voted Thursday to block federal pollution limits on the dust kicked up by farms, mines and other rural operations.

The bill sponsored by freshman Rep. Krisiti Noem, R-S.D., is a key part of Republican efforts to roll back federal rules and regulations, arguing that government overreach is holding back the economy.

It's unlikely the bill, Noem's signature piece of legislation, will go any further. The White House has threatened to veto the bill and it faces strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"Dust in rural America is not the same as dust in urban areas," said Noem. "It's common sense that dust from a dirt road is not the same as soot from a car and it's common sense that they should be regulated differently."

After the 268-150 vote in the GOP-controlled House, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., called for passing a similar bill in the Senate. He had earlier backed off the issue after assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency that it would not tighten its existing dust regulations. EPA's pledge "was important, but a valid argument has been made that it does not prevent future administrations" from changing the regulations, Johanns said Thursday.

Thirty-three Democrats voted for the bill, including all three from Iowa: Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack. No Republican voted against it.

At issue is a form of pollution known as particulate matter. Federal emission limits are high enough that they do not affect farms in most parts of the country, but Republicans have argued that environmentalists could use a lawsuit to force the EPA to lower the caps in the future. The bill would exempt from the limits the dust that originates from farms, mining operations and other rural sources. The bill defines such emissions as "nuisance dust."

Democrats alternately mocked the bill, calling it a distraction from more important issues, and warned that it could posed a threat to public health because it would cover dust from mining operations, smelters and other industrial sources.

"The middle class is being clobbered and you're talking about dust," said Rep. James McDermott, D-Wash., told Republicans.

A Utah copper operation that is a subsidiary of multinational mining giant Rio Tinto was supporting the bill as were corn processors. The Housed voted down a Democratic amendment that would have stripped mining operations from the bill's protection.

"The reason industrial mining operations are pushing this bill has nothing to do with protecting family farms," said Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The White House issued a statement of administration policy that says the bill could force the EPA to roll back existing protections in areas where that kind of pollution already is a problem.

"This ambiguously written bill would create high levels of regulatory uncertainty regarding emission control requirements that have been in place for years," the statement said.

The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost the EPA $10 million to rework its existing air pollution standards if the bill passes and to study whether changes would be necessary in its national monitoring network that tracks dust levels throughout the country.