For several months now farmers and ranchers have been keeping a wary eye on the Environmental Protection Agency.
Under federal law, the EPA is required to review air-quality standards every five years. That review is now under way. The EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has recommended that the agency set tougher restrictions on airborne dust and dirt -- "coarse particulate matter" in government speak.
An EPA draft memo suggested setting 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.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said farmers needn't worry. In an interview with the Capital Press last week, Vilsack said the EPA has been receptive to his agency's concerns about the impacts strict air quality rules would have in farm country.
He said he's spoken with EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, and is "reasonably certain" that she understands the rules need to be reasonable so that they don't impact the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.
"Before people jump to conclusions ... they ought to let the process work," Vilsack said. "If there's a problem with the rule, it would be appropriate to express concerns."
In published interviews, EPA officials have been quick to point out that the agency has not yet officially proposed any change in the standard, and that concern by ag groups and their political allies that any eventual rules will be a hardship on farmers and ranchers is premature.
The ag community isn't buying it.
"We've learned not to take anything for granted from any agency and not to believe what any agency says until it happens," Richard Krause, senior director of congressional affairs for the Washington-based American Farm Bureau Federation, told The Associated Press.
The Farm Bureau has been down this road before. It lost a lawsuit against the EPA in 2006 over similar rules. The agency yielded to political pressure and didn't issue those rules. "We want to make sure they understand the concerns of rural America," Krause said.
Members of the House of Representatives from both parties seem to be skeptical as well. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., offered an amendment to a recent budget bill to prohibit EPA from revising the standards. It passed on a 255-168 bipartisan vote.
No doubt Vilsack is sincere in his faith that EPA will be reasonable. But that's not a word we've often heard used to describe the agency.