EPA and the ag industry, a love story?

Source: Jenny Hopkinson, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Gina McCarthy was talking cheese and tractors, not flowers and chocolates, at Monday’s meeting of state agriculture officials. Nevertheless, it was no doubt an attempt by the new EPA administrator to woo agriculture interests as the agency prepares to release a pair of rules that could have major effects on the sector.

“I mentioned before that this is a crowd that I’m not sure EPA has reached out to,” McCarthy told the approximately 100 in attendance at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s winter policy meeting in Reston, Va. “One of the reasons why I wanted to be here this morning is so that you would know that I know how important our relationship is with you.”

“There’s very little distance between us.”

The EPA is preparing in the coming year to release both its final 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard and also proposed Clean Water Act rules, two actions that could have big ramifications for agriculture.

The RFS will set production mandates for corn ethanol and other biofuels. A draft of the rule that reduces that mandate has come under fire from some agriculture interests, lawmakers and corn state lawmakers who worry it could harm corn producers and the fledgling biofuels industry.

The agency’s other pending rule would define “waters of the United States,” clarifying which water bodies are covered by CWA permitting, potentially leading to requirements that farmers gain approval for pesticide spraying over concerns about chemicals drifting into nearby rivers or streams, among other possible permitting requirements.

Both initiatives are among the EPA’s top priorities and among agriculture’s top concerns. However, McCarthy tried to assure farmers Monday that there is nothing to worry about.

“I believe that farmers are our original conservationists,” McCarthy said Monday. “I believe that EPA’s mission is the same mission and [in line] with the agriculture community. I know you are the underpinning” of a healthy and safe country, economy and environment.

McCarthy officially took the reins at the EPA last summer, following her Senate confirmation to replace Lisa Jackson. Since then, McCarthy said, she has been traveling the country, talking with farmers and state departments of agriculture amid the agency’s standard discussions with industry, environmentalists and others.

The administrator said she is making working with the agriculture sector a main priority, noting that there are many environmental issues affecting the sector.

To further endear herself to the agriculture officials, McCarthy described her recent experiences attempting to steer a John Deere tractor during an event in California. The Boston-area native added that her favorite cheese is “Vermont Cheddah.”

The serenade seemed to resonate with state officials.

“Showing up, in this business, counts for something, and she showed up with a positive attitude” intent on engaging state agriculture officials, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said.

However, while Ross was impressed with McCarthy’s message of engaging farmers and agriculture, “the proof will be in the pudding when times get hard,” he added.

Being accessible to state agriculture officials through venues like the NASDA meeting and state visits “are a good sign,” said Robert Flider, head of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

“Her presence here gives me hope that she’s going to make sure that [state concerns with the rules] are taken into account.”

However, depending on the outcome of the rules the EPA is handling, it could be a short-lived romance.

While both will be problematic, “the RFS is the one that haunts me the most,” said McCarthy, who helped craft the program when she led, until last year, the agency’s air office. EPA officials are currently working through the more than 15,000 comments on the proposal.

“I have heard loud and clear that you don’t think we hit that right,” she said at the NASDA meeting, promising that the final measure will be “in a shape that you will see that we have listened to your comments,” and that will continue to move the biofuels industry forward.

 

And McCarthy sought to assuage fears that the agency’s pending “waters of the United States” rule, which she said should be released soon, would cause an unnecessary new permitting burden on farmers.

 

“We are doing it on the basis of the best science available to us,” McCarthy said of developing the proposal. She added that the goal of the rule is to prevent further uncertainty for farmers and other potential dischargers on what needs to be permitted.

 

“We are working very hard to make sure that people understand that we are not connecting more rivers and streams under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act than the science would let us,” McCarthy said. “We are not doing an overreach.”

 

She practiced good diplomacy when asked by Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, whether she would be “willing to look at state programs” when crafting the proposed rule.

 

“That’s a very good point,” the administrator answered, jotting down the comment. “I’ll take that back.”

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