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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Settling the Dust in Arkansas

The Arkansas Senate race continues to be fertile ground for fact-checkers. Sen. Mark Pryor tries to make political hay out of agricultural dust by distorting the facts in a new TV ad, while Republicans manufacture a bogus jobs claim against the Democratic senator.

Taking a page out of the Republican “small government” playbook, Pryor takes credit for halting an Environmental Protection Agency attempt to regulate farm dust. But in Pryor’s example of federal over-regulation, the EPA is a straw man; it was merely conducting a routine mandatory review and never seriously considered regulations of farm dust.

While Pryor’s ad casts the Arkansas senator as a champion of deregulation, an ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee claims Pryor is responsible for “new regulations that cripple job creators, killing Arkansas jobs.” The ad cites as evidence the 55,000 manufacturing jobs lost in Arkansas since Pryor entered the Senate. The ad does not mention, however, that manufacturing jobs were in steady decline for several years before Pryor took office, or that most of those job losses occurred during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush.

Farm Dust

Dire warnings about EPA regulation of farm dust are like political weeds that keep cropping up. But Pryor’s ad is the first we’ve seen it this political season.

The ad begins with Pryor kneeling in a farm field, handling soil, as he says, “The EPA wanted to write a federal regulation limiting agricultural dust. Obviously, Washington knows nothing about farming. Working with Republicans and Democrats, we stopped it.”

But it turns out there wasn’t actually anything to stop. It’s true that in 2011, the EPA reviewed its standards on particulate matter, as required by law. And that raised concern among some legislators that it would lead to regulation of farm dust. Pryor was among a bipartisan group of 32 senators who wrote to the EPA to urge the agency not to issue such regulations (though he did not co-sponsor the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011).

Letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Feb. 15, 2011: While we strongly support efforts to safeguard the wellbeing of Americans, most Americans would agree that common sense dictates that the federal government should not regulate dust creation in farm fields and on rural roads. … Given the ubiquitous nature of dust in agricultural settings and many rural environments, and the near impossible task of mitigating dust in most settings, we are hopeful that the EPA will give special consideration to the realities of farm and rural environments, including retaining the current standard.

The EPA never did enact any dust regulations. But was that due to the intervention of Pryor and other legislators? Not really. The EPA administrator said the agency never had any intention to regulate farmers’ dust.

As we wrote when the issue was raised by Newt Gingrich during a Republican presidential primary debate in 2012, the EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to periodically review the standards for particulate matter to make sure that they are in line with current science. In April 2011, the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards recommended that the agency consider “either retaining or revising the current standard” downward for coarse particles, which the agency considers a risk to public health. Inhalable coarse particles — including those found in dusty industries such as farming — would have been subject to the stricter limits.

But during congressional testimony in March 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the EPA had no intention of changing the standards currently in place. That was still the agency’s position six months later when an EPA spokeswoman told FactCheck.org that the review was still ongoing, but that there were “no plans to put stricter standards in place.” And in October 2011, Jackson formally announced her final decision, saying she would propose no change to current EPA regulations.

In other words, the policy was reviewed, but the EPA never said it “wanted to write a federal regulation limiting agricultural dust,” as Pryor’s ad claims.

Regulator or Deregulator?

The narrator of the Pryor ad claims the Arkansas senator “has led a bipartisan effort to cut government regulations.” And at the end of the ad, Pryor says he is “working to make Washington smarter and smaller.”

The message stands in stark contrast to one from an NRSC ad that hit the airwaves the same day, claiming Pryor is responsible for “new regulations that cripple job creators, killing Arkansas jobs.” On screen, it reads, “Mark Pryor, 55,000 manufacturing jobs lost.”

It’s true, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that Arkansas has lost 54,700 manufacturing jobs between January 2003, when Pryor took office, and August 2014, the latest data available. However, manufacturing jobs were in a steady skid long before Pryor joined the Senate. In the two-and-a-half years before Pryor took office, Arkansas lost 30,700 manufacturing jobs. And most of the manufacturing jobs lost while Pryor has been in office — more than 36,000 of the 54,700 — came during Bush’s presidency. Presidential administrations write the federal regulations, though legislators often pass laws that require them.

Whether Pryor is a net regulator or deregulator is a matter of debate.

Pryor’s ad correctly notes that in 2011, Pryor was co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bipartisan Regulatory Accountability Act, which would have required federal agencies to assess potential costs and benefits of proposed regulations, as well as alternatives. It also would have expanded judicial oversight of agency rule-making. The House version passed, but the Senate bill was never considered.

The Pryor campaign also points to Pryor’s work to ease regulations related to oil spills on farms and to exclude farm runoff from some anti-pollution provisions, as well as his vote to protect farmers from Clean Water Act regulations.

The NRSC, meanwhile, cites a number of votes Pryor cast against relaxing various regulations. For example, in June 2012, Pryor voted against a motion to consider a joint resolution to nullify an EPA rule relating to mercury and air toxic standards for utilities. And in November 2011, Pryor voted against a resolution to nullify an EPA rule regarding cross-state air pollution.

The NRSC also points to Pryor’s vote for the Affordable Care Act, which it claims will hurt job growth (a claim we looked at in-depth and found independent, nonpartisan experts projected “minimal” impact on jobs); and his 2008 vote to consider a plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions and set up a trading system for companies to buy and sell emissions allowances (though the bill never passed, and therefore could not have affected job losses).

Ultimately, whether one is a net regulator or deregulator is difficult to assess. Both sides can point to examples of laws Pryor has supported that would have resulted in an increase or decrease in federal regulations. However, the ad’s suggestion that Pryor’s record on regulation is responsible for the loss of 55,000 manufacturing jobs ignores the decline of such jobs in the years before Pryor took office and the fact that most of the 55,000 jobs were lost during the Bush presidency.

— Robert Farley