Editor’s Note: Part of the CNN Republican debate fact-checking series
The statement: “They were worried that the plowing of a cornfield would leave dust to go to another farmer’s cornfield. … They were planning to issue a regulation. In Arizona, they went in on the dust regulation and suggested to them that maybe if they watered down the earth, they wouldn’t have these dust storms in the middle of the year. And people said to them, ‘You know, the reason it’s called a desert is there’s no water.’ Now this is an agency out of touch with reality, which I believe is incorrigible, and you need a new agency that is practical, has commonsense, uses economic factors and, in the case pollution, actually incentives change, doesn’t just punish it.”
– Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency during Sunday’s Republican presidential debate on NBC.
Concerns that EPA bureaucrats are going to make farmers pay for the dust blown off their fields and churned up by their combines originated as the agency was going through a periodic review of Clean Air Act regulations. The story has since wafted from farm states to the halls of Congress, borne aloft in part by the hot breezes of the campaign season.
Dust particles do fall under the EPA’s definition of coarse particulates regulated by the Clean Air Act. And farmers in some parts of the country, such as arid Arizona, do have to take steps to limit dust to control pollution and erosion.
But the Obama administration says stories that they plan to tighten rules on farm dust are just not true. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the House Agriculture Committee in March that her agency had “no plans” for any such rule and told senators in October that the EPA would recommend no changes to the current rule. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the story a “myth” and blasted Congress for “engaging in false debates.”
That didn’t stop the Republican-led House of Representatives from voting in December to ban the EPA from enacting any such rule. The lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-South Dakota, said the EPA’s disavowals “are empty promises until we back them up with real action.”
The White House opposes the measure, which is now before the Senate. In a statement of policy on Noem’s bill in December, the White House said its language “could be used to roll back existing public health protection limiting pollution from mining operations, industrial activities, and possibly other sources.”
Some of the major farm lobbies backed Noem’s bill. The American Farm Bureau Federation said the EPA’s insistence that no stricter rules are planned “still does not provide much-needed assurance for farmers and ranchers, especially when final rules often differ from proposed rules and lawsuits are a dime a dozen.” And the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association added, “Taking the EPA’s word that farm dust will not be further regulated provides absolutely no relief to those cattle producers already faced with dust regulations.”
But the National Farmers Union, which represents small farms and co-ops, blasted Congress for wasting time on a phantom menace. “Congress should stop politicizing this issue and move on to passing meaningful legislation to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities,” it said.
The verdict: False. Gingrich isn’t the first to dust off a widely circulated story – onetime front-runner Herman Cain referred to the possibility during a GOP debate in September – but as of now, there’s no sign that any such rule is being drawn up.
CNN’s Matt Smith contributed to this report.