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Transcript - Brownfield Ag Network Radio Interview with Regional Administrator Karl Brooks: Chemical Safety, Nutrient Management

Karl Brooks: I'm Karl Brooks. I'm the Regional Administrator for Region 7 in the Environmental Protection Agency. We include the states of Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. And that's Karl with a K.

Tom Steever: What brought you to Columbia?

Karl Brooks: MO-AG is one of the most important gatherings of folks who are involved in, you might say, the inputs of farming as well as the crops that are produced. Their big annual convention, here in Columbia each year, is a chance to visit with all different kinds of ag industry sectors and EPA is happy to give a talk here. The two main themes that I'm going to talk about, Tom, are chemical safety in the wake of the tragic incident of West, Texas, this spring and how the EPA is working with federal agencies to carry out the President's Executive Order on safety and economy – and then, secondly, I want to talk with folks in the room here about water quality and especially about how we can manage nutrients better.

Tom Steever: What has resulted from the tragedy in West, Texas? What has come about because of that?

Karl Brooks: Probably the most noticeable result right now is a series of listening sessions around the country where the EPA, Department of Homeland Security, OSHA, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – that all have parts of the chemical regulatory responsibility – have asked people to come in from the chemical industry, from the wholesale and retail side, from ag production, and also from community and worker safety and share their recommendations about how our federal system of managing chemicals can be safe, safe for the workers there, safe for the customer, safe for the neighbors, and also contribute to productivity. The chemical industry sector is one of the most productive in the world and American agriculture is the world's most productive. So we want to try to make sure that we're safe and productive.

Tom Steever: Give me a little bit of the disposition of what has happened since that tragedy because certainly the EPA is a federal agency and here is going to be concerned about if there were any violations. So what is the disposition of that?

Karl Brooks: What this Agency, the EPA, can contribute is making sure that the two basic jobs that we have to do, first is to make sure that local emergency responders have information about chemicals that are being stored or handled in a certain area so that if there's an incident, the emergency responders can respond promptly and do the right thing. Secondly, we want to make sure the facilities that handle chemicals know what to do in the event of an incident. In other words, it's planning to stay safe and we call those Risk Management Plans or RMPs. So the two contributions this Agency has made to work since West: make sure that the RMP process is well understood by every segment of the industry, and also to make sure that local first responders have the information they need. One thing that we're trying to do, Tom, is promote the sharing of information among these different federal agencies so that an industry or business that is required to make reports doesn’t have to do multiple reports with the same information in different directions. We want to try to make that information transparent and more seamless.

Tom Steever: Let's talk about the Agency's RFS [Renewable Fuel Standard] proposal. That has certainly received a lot of commentary from both sides of the issue. Now where does that stand and what may happen?

Karl Brooks: Sure, back about three weeks ago when the Agency announced a draft rule dealing with RFS quantities for 2014 and the year past, it drew a substantial amount of commentary in our part of the country here. Certainly in Iowa, Nebraska, which are substantial both ethanol and biofuels producing states and grain growing states, there was a substantial reaction. The Agency continues to get public comments on that proposed rule. I want to emphasize it's a proposal. Administrator McCarthy, my boss, told Governor Branstad just two weeks ago: please, if you have more information, if producers have more information, if the ethanol and biofuels industries have more information, get that information to the Agency. The comment date, I believe, now is the latter part of January. I know that all the members of the Iowa congressional delegation and Governor Branstad have asked the EPA to hold one more public hearing somewhere here in the heartland. I know that idea's under active consideration. No decision's been made about that yet, but certainly anybody, whether they grow the grain that goes to fuel, whether they're involved in the biofuels industry, whether they are other customers of that grain in the food sector, the livestock sector – if you have views, get them into the Agency because we make the decision on the basis of data.

Tom Steever: The proposal is a change in direction from what’s been happening. Can you talk about the rationale behind the proposal?

Karl Brooks: I can talk about the rationale in general terms. The RFS rule, Tom, it's a national EPA rule. It's a rule that's prepared by economists and fuel specialists working at Headquarters. I'm out here in the Region. My primary job is to make sure that folks in this part of the country who have information are sharing it with Headquarters. I'm going to give you the basics, and then I'm going to encourage anybody who wants to know more about it to contact folks at EPA Headquarters. The Agency took a look at markets for fuel in the coming year and at some of the conditions that inhibit the ability of biofuels to reach the market, and concluded that the targets that were established a couple of years back need to be adjusted slightly. I know that one of the main things that this Agency at the EPA has seen is that the amount of fuel being consumed by our cars and by our trucks continues to moderate as we get smarter, better, more efficient engines. And so, overall demand for transport fuel looks like it's going to be moderating in the future, even though the economy's perking back up.

Tom Steever: Another question about the Agency's relationship with farm producers and that is to make sure to have that balance between a good environment and a productive agriculture. Comment on that. Give me the 30,000-foot view on that.

Karl Brooks: Sure, Tom. That connection between agricultural innovation and productivity and cleaner water and healthier, more productive landscapes – it's vital. It's one that this Agency strives very hard to understand. It's one of the reasons why, here in Region 7 where we grow so much of the nation's and the world's food, my colleagues at EPA Region 7 work very hard both to understand the goals of agricultural producers and also to understand the techniques and the methods. They change all the time. I mean, people joke it's not your grandfather's row crop business, it's not even your uncle's row crop business anymore. The techniques, the tools, the knowledge base changes so fast that we think at the EPA our duties to work with states and producers to keep our waters healthy actually benefit from agricultural innovation. My boss, Administrator McCarthy, back in this late summer when she was in Iowa said: one of the keys to water quality and rural America is for this Agency to take advantage of the productivity and the innovation of American producers, of ag producers – and we do that.

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