I recently spent a week working on the family farm in northwest Kansas helping with corn harvest. The setting was picturesque as the corn piled up in the combine bin. As I reminisce of growing up on the farm, this was and is my favorite time of the year.
As I watched my eighty-two year old father operate the combine while rolling through the field, I noticed it stirring up dirt particles that blew across the field. As a farmer, you realize this is part of farming, but to others, these particles represent a threat.
This reminded me of a brochure I recently came across out of Boulder County, Colorado. It stated “Why should I be concerned about fugitive dust?” My first thought was you have to be kidding. Dust treated as a fugitive akin to a criminal who has escaped from prison?
Right now, federal environmental regulators are in the process of reviewing airborne pollutant standards. This evaluation includes what is described as “coarse particulate matter,” which includes dust.
That’s right. Dust.
This summer, regulators submitted a draft report that telegraphed their move. They seek to tighten the air particle standards from 150 micrograms per cubic meter to between 65 and 85 micrograms.
We are talking dust particles smaller than one-eighth the diameter of a human hair.
The government is considering regulating particles generated by diesel exhaust from tractors, combines and trucks, tire wear, pesticides, animal gas/manure and soil. Disagreements over whether air pollution is threatening the health of Americans fuels the debate over air quality regulation, especially for agriculture.
The Clean Air Act defines “air pollutant” to include “any physical, chemical, biological or radioactive… substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.”
This definition would include everything from the soap bubbles children blow toward the sky, smoke rising from candles in your church, Boy Scout campfires and countless other things rarely perceived as pollutants. Indeed, under this definition, it’s difficult to imagine anything that enters the air that is not an air pollutant.
Certainly, farmers and ranchers recognize their environmental responsibility. Many of the control measures absent in the Dust Bowl era have been implemented to prevent soil erosion. Many farmers use no-till or minimum-till farming (a conservation-driven land management practice that allows more vegetation to remain in the soil). Others have developed buffer strips and/or terraces.
These methods have saved soil displacement, but will never prevent the dust from blowing in Kansas, particularly the western counties.
When I was a teenager, the rock group, Kansas, had a hit with Dust in the Wind. One of my favorite lyrics in that song is, “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.”
And now, maybe, government regulation of the same.