By Doug Sombke, South Dakota Farmers Union
Special to The Digest
This time of year many of us wrestle with New Years Resolutions–what can we do that we did not do last year? What can we do better? How can we improve ourselves and maybe in the process make the world a better place?
Well, for the US Environmental Protection Agency, I have a couple of suggestions. And it is not just something they did not do last year, but something they did not do for the last quarter of a century, and that is to do their job and enforce the law.
I was struck by a recent report that Senate Environment Committee Chairman John Barasso (R-WY) wrote EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt admonishing him for “ignoring the will of Congress and the requirements of the Clean Air Act”. The Senator was referring to specific reporting and study requirements as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard. At the National Farmers Union and the South Dakota Chapter, we are all for that, assuming EPA uses the best available science and information as opposed to their outdated and archaic models. The bigger disconnect for me, however, is why that same outrage over failed implementation of Congressional directives has not applied to one of the most serious health threats facing the public today.
I am referring to the mandatory requirements in the Clean Air Act that EPA enforce section 202 (l), the “clean octane” provision designed to reduce the use of toxic aromatic compounds in gasoline. These Mobile Source Air Toxics are derived from a family of known or suspected carcinogens the petroleum industry uses such as benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene, and xylene–street name of BTEX. The health threat these gasoline emissions pose is nothing short of shocking. Fine particulates and secondary organic aerosols are produced as a result of incomplete combustion and carry the lethal BETX compounds that travel great distances and can bypass our lungs and directly enter the bloodstream. This could explain the spike in not just respiratory diseases near roadways and in condensed urban areas but also neurological illness like autism and birth defects.
I recently wrote our own Senator from South Dakota Mike Rounds who sits on the Environment Committee, urging him to challenge Chairman Barasso to apply his logic of demanding EPA enforce the law to this issue as well. The BTEX health threat is significant but left unchecked likely to become much greater as higher octane fuels are needed to meet ever increasing mileage standards. The Section 202(l) provision requires EPA to regulate and reduce toxics in gasoline to the “greatest degree achievable”. In a review of air toxics in 2007 the agency acknowledged that other octane options, notably ethanol, could be the key to achieving that goal. But that is all they did– they gave it a nod and continued to ignore the growing problem of toxics in gasoline and the related public health risks.
That led me to try to understand where and why this has happened, again keeping mind there has been a 25 year directive of Congress, which essentially made its own endangerment finding as it related to these aromatic emissions. My search led me to the Office of Transportation and Air Quality (OTAQ) at EPA and the realization that a handful of technocrats has controlled fuel composition in this country and in the process been unduly influenced by the petroleum industry. The current OTAQ Director Christopher Grundler has been in that position for several years and sees the same data we see but chooses to blame pollution on everything from cheating diesel carmakers to leafblowers. EPA prides itself on reducing particulates in the PM 10 and PM 2.5 range which are primarily derived from smokestacks and diesel, respectively. But these gasoline derived nano particles that defy capture by current vehicle technology are unchecked. Whats worse is that EPA’ s left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing as evidenced by the agency’s Office of Research and Development which last year acknowledged that gasoline exhaust is the predominant source of urban secondary organic aerosols.
I wrote Mr. Grundler asking how he can ignore the reality of gasoline being such an obvious source of air toxics and how the mountains of evidence we and others have accumulated on urban and near-roadway health issues is not being linked to gasoline. I am eagerly awaiting his response along with that of those elected officials who seem to selectively choose which laws they feel should be enforced.
From my seat overlooking our frozen fields following a barn busting harvest, it saddens me to know we have the tools at hand to improve fuel quality in the form of renewable ethanol yet we are stymied by EPA. In addition to not recognizing the threat of today’s gasoline, EPA has refused to remove unnecessary regulatory roadblocks that would open the market and allow us to meet the Clean Air Act requirement of achieving the greatest reductions possible. In so doing it would not only protect public health but shore up the rural economy and solidify our position in terms of energy security. Protecting public health need not be done in a vacuum or looked at in isolated terms– we can combine multiple public policy objectives through a clean fuel and clean octane program. We have billions of bushels of excess feed grain corn that can be converted to both food and fuel if given access to the market.
So to our friends at EPA, consider this as you look to the new year and think about a worthwhile resolution: Enforce the law and make 2018 the year of fuel quality.
Doug Sombke is the President of the South Dakota Farmers Union