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Transcript - Brownfield Ag Radio Network Interview with Regional Administrator Karl Brooks on Agriculture Outreach and Other Topics

Bob Meyer: Let's talk farmer outreach. You guys are really out here to help.

Karl Brooks: Sure we are, Bob. EPA tries to meet with sectors of the ag industry all over the country. We are in Region 7, so that includes the ag heartland of America – Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas.

We have done things like go to all of the land grant colleges on a pretty steady basis. We have worked with the ag business associations. I have been a speaker at several of their big regional conventions here. And we have tried to do a lot of specific conversations with producer groups.

Good example being people involved in livestock. We have had sessions in places like West Point, Nebraska, and Arcadia, Iowa, to talk about the work we do under the Clean Water Act and inspecting CAFOs. So it's a pretty broad effort to try to learn from ag, and also to let them know more about what we do at the Environmental Protection Agency.

I would have to say that in the couple of years I have been our Regional Administrator, our working relationship with livestock producers has gotten steadily better. We are seen as a respected source of advice. Folks understand we have this regulatory role and they appreciate what we do to try to get out as much information as we can to producers about how the Clean Water Act works, how they get permitted by their state environmental agency. We have this great little pamphlet called "What to Expect When You're Inspected." So we really aim to try to be transparent, open, accessible.

We are working with people who are in a very complicated business and we respect the fact they have got a lot on their plate. We try to make sure that we are accessible and transparent to them.

Bob Meyer: One of the big concerns, of course, the last year or so was the farm dust and agricultural dust, an issue that kind of blew up on you really.

Karl Brooks: It did blow up, and we hope that that cloud has now blown away. Earlier this year, the Administrator decided that the Agency would not be making any changes to the Clean Air Act standard called particulate matter or PM10.

There had been some concern in the countryside that EPA would be enforcing new regulations that might affect things like ordinary cultivation or operating vehicles on dirt roads. That wasn't the intent. It has never been part of our air quality control strategy, and I think the formal decision the Administrator made puts that one to rest for five more years.

It's important to know, under the Clean Air Act, every five years the Agency has to take a look at air quality science and health impacts of pollution. So whoever is president, there will be a review coming up in – I guess it would be 2017 – of these rules.

Bob Meyer: What about runoff – always a concern about what's going into the Missouri and the Mississippi River?

Karl Brooks: You bet. Nutrient and phosphorus pollution remains a real challenge for us, especially here in the midsection of the country. EPA has been trying to work really closely with state ag and environmental departments, as well as with landowner and commodity groups, because the most effective controls on nitrogen and phosphorus – they are on the ground, they are on the farm, they are actually at the smallest watershed level.

Real exciting opportunities in Iowa, which is a state, you know, that has a massive amount of land under production. Up there the Ag Secretary, Bill Northey, and the Director of the State Environmental Department, Chuck Gipp, have put together a plan that they are going to be sharing with producers all during the winter. It's a little bit like a manual for how to control nitrogen and phosphorus on your specific kind of property, in your specific kind of watershed.

Iowa is a big contributor, especially to Mississippi Basin N and P pollution. We think Iowa is a good place to start and get some measurable results.

Bob Meyer: Are you seeing, with nutrient management plans, a reduction in what's being run off?

Karl Brooks: It depends – watershed to watershed, Bob. Some watersheds have noticed really substantial reductions; in part, because they have got very innovative plans; in part, because they have landowners who are really dedicated to it; in part, because they might have county extension agents who are really promoting practices that keep soil and nutrients on the ground.

In other watersheds, it's still a work in progress, I have got to say. The task is enormous. Estimates are that about 90 percent of the ground here in the Midwest is either cropped or grazed. That's a lot of turf, that's a lot of nitrogen and a lot of phosphorus, because we are also the leading corn and soybean producer – and we have thousands of landowners that we have to work with, so it's always a work in progress. But we are optimistic that we are going to show some good results.

Bob Meyer: What about – how does the drought affect you this year?

Karl Brooks: Well, in our part of the country here, especially on the Central Plains, it has been obviously a tremendous challenge for producers. Western Nebraska, Western Kansas, probably still the hardest hit; Central and Southern Missouri, especially earlier in the summer, were really hard hit.

Couple of things that we did at the Environmental Protection Agency to accept the fact that the drought was a really serious challenge – we began to shift a lot of our CAFO inspection work away from areas where there was very little water moving, so there wasn't much to see in terms of compliance with clean water permits.

Another thing that we are doing, especially in rural communities, is trying to keep an eye on drinking water supplies. A lot of these smaller towns have very shallow wells and are starting to look at a time – if the drought continues, especially during this winter – where they would be facing some challenges on getting drinking water. We are aware that we are working with state health departments, and also with water treatment plants. Most communities, they have to treat sewage – and if water levels drop too far, it makes it very difficult for that sewage treatment plant to be as effective as it can. There are things we can do. There are things operators can do.

So we are part of a number of different groups sharing information about the drought, providing technical support, and keeping an eye on some of these watersheds that could really, really feel the pinch come March, April, if we don't have a wet winter.

Bob Meyer: And if people would like more information on EPA?

Karl Brooks: Oh, sure. They can go to www.epa.gov. That's the homepage for the Agency. Each region can be accessed by inserting forward slash and the region number. In our case, www.epa.gov/region7, and there is a ton of good information on those EPA pages that any kind of farmer or livestock producer or anybody involved in the ag industry could use.

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