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Transparency hard to see

Published on March 18, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on April 15, 2011 7:19AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan to rewrite its National Ambient Air Quality Standards to cut by half the amount of airborne dust has drawn a lot of fire from farm organizations across the country.

The proposed rules could result in allowable coarse particulate matter levels as low as 65 to 85 micrograms per cubic meter -- about half the 150 micrograms per cubic meter currently allowed under the agency's air quality standards. Such a move could cause vast areas in the West -- including parts of Idaho and California -- to violate pollution standards.

The agency recently conducted a series of meetings around the country to gather views on the proposed regulations. The EPA was trying to gauge the impact of proposed changes on farmers and ranchers.

The proceedings, however, were conducted behind a cloud of secrecy that we doubt would pass muster under the new standards.

The meetings were closed to the public. The only people allowed to attend and give insight were "stakeholders" invited by the government.

Capital Press reporter Matthew Weaver was barred from entering the meeting conducted March 9 in Spokane. Bill Harnett, associate director of the EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, refused to provide him with a list of people invited to participate.

EPA spokesman Richard Yost said that unlike public hearings, the agency's stakeholder meetings are closed.

"We strive to give participants the ability to speak frankly at these meetings," he said.

While we don't know who may have attended these meetings in other quarters, many of those who we recognized entering the meeting in Spokane have been outspoken critics of the EPA's proposal. We doubt they took a different stance inside the meeting than they did when questioned outside in the hall.

People representing state government agencies and elected officials didn't come to Spokane with any expectation of privacy. In fact, Idaho Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Brian Oakey and Todd Weiner, communications director for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, were surprised to learn the meeting was closed to the public.

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

We're not either. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture talked with stakeholders about competitiveness in the meat-packing business, it conducted public forums across the country. It did the same with proposed animal identification rules, an issue equally as contentious as the dust regulations. In neither case was there any shortage of frank commentary.

Before a new set of rules goes into effect, the EPA will have to open them up to public comment. But that will come after the deck is somewhat stacked. We don't know who the EPA has talked with, or what those people have said. Only the EPA will know what helped shape the rules.

That's not right.

The EPA's actions provide yet another example of an executive branch agency running counter to President Barack Obama's much-ballyhooed promise of transparency. We think the public is best served when as much of the rule making as is possible is done in the open.


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