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EPA closes meetings to allow stakeholders to 'speak frankly'

By MATTHEW WEAVER,  Capital Press 3/11/11

SPOKANE -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a series of closed-door meetings with hand-picked groups of stakeholders as it develops new national air standards on dust.

EPA officials are weighing proposed changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In the meetings, which are being held around the nation, they are seeking data, feedback on monitoring requirements and trying to determine the impact a change in the standards would have on farmers and ranchers.

EPA spokesman Richard Yost said the meetings are closed to the public because they are stakeholder meetings.

"We strive to give participants the ability to speak frankly at these meetings," he said. "EPA frequently meets with a wide range of stakeholders on any number of issues."

The agency would not provide a list of the stakeholders it invited.

A record of the meeting will be placed in the public docket at a later date, Yost said.

A reporter from the Capital Press was not allowed to attend the Spokane meeting the morning of March 9. The invitation-only gathering was at the Hampton Inn in Spokane the morning of March 9.

Bill Harnett, associate director of the EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, said the meeting was closed to allow the stakeholders to share their conversations more openly.

Harnett said the last in the series of meetings would take place March 10. He declined to comment further.

The EPA did not provide a list of those individuals or organizations invited to the meeting. People attending the meeting included several Eastern Washington farmers, representatives of the Washington Grain Commission, Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Idaho Wheat Commission, Columbia Plateau PM10 Project, Washington Grange Association and the office of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

Todd Weiner, McMorris Rodgers' communications director, said the congresswoman is concerned with the direction the EPA has recently taken.

"She's concerned the EPA is moving forward with the PM10 standard changes that in her mind the scientific data doesn't support, which is creating uncertainty in Eastern Washington and across America," Weiner said.

PM10 stands for particulate matter that is 10 micrometers or less in diameter. It poses a health concern because it can be inhaled and accumulate in the lungs. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers -- PM2.5 -- are referred to as fine particles and are believed to pose the largest health risks, according to the EPA website.

Idaho Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Brian Oakey, who was invited to the meeting, said he was not aware it was closed to the public.

"I'm not sure why (EPA) would run the meeting the way they did," he said.

"The rules they're considering can have a dramatic impact on agriculture," Oakey told the Capital Press. "I think it's good EPA is reaching out to agricultural stakeholders and giving them an opportunity to comment and provide input on the rule."

John Stuhlmiller, Washington State Farm Bureau director of governmental relations, had a representative at the meeting.

The organization is concerned about the possible change in dust regulations.

"Ag is already struggling with all kinds of regulatory uncertainty," Stuhlmiller said. "That's the issue -- making sure you don't put agriculture out of business in the process of trying to have clean air."

The Farm Bureau believes normal tilling is not a threat to human health and safety, Stuhlmiller said.

"There's no way to till a field without having dust arise," he said. "Obviously, we do a lot of tillage practices to minimize, but still, it's going to have dust."

Columbia Plateau PM10 Project co-coordinator Bill Schillinger also attended the meeting.

Farmers have been operating under a PM10 standard, Schillinger said. He works with farmers to meet that standard. A PM2.5 requirement would not be too concerning for Eastern Washington, Schillinger said. Most dust falls between PM2.5 and PM10.

EPA tried to change the standards in 2006, but that proposal was "totally unrealistic," Schillinger said.

"This time around, I don't think it's a problem to have a smaller table to talk through the issue," Stuhlmiller said. "Sometimes having a smaller group of the affected parties will help get education and a little more free-flowing dialogue rather than a public meeting with 200 or 300 people."


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