Transcript - WIBW Radio (Topeka, Kan.) Interview with Regional Administrator Karl Brooks: Clean Air and Water Priorities, Flint Hills
Kelly Lenz: It is now 11 minutes past 6. This is Ag Issues on 580 radio WIBW, and we are delighted to have joining us in studio this morning, a guy I've interviewed many times over the last several years. He is Karl Brooks, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is located over in Kansas City. Karl, good to have you with us again.
Karl Brooks: Kelly, it's great to be back again. Look forward to it.
Kelly Lenz: Alright, it is a brand new year and it is a new term for the Obama Administration. And let's focus, at least initially, on what the Agency plans to do from the standpoint of clean water, clean air – especially, in so far as it impacts agriculture.
Karl Brooks: Sure, Kelly. New administration, but a continuation of some of the key personnel at our own agency. Folks probably saw that my boss, the Administrator, announced that she'll be resigning here in fairly short order. Don't know yet who the President's going to select to be the new Administrator. That will obviously be pretty important for everybody who works with this agency. In the meantime, our number two guy will no doubt be the acting, and so that means pretty much a continuation of things we've been up to for the last year or so.
I'd have to say some of the priorities, they tend to be priorities that are important to the Agency year in, year out – President in, President out. You mentioned clean water. Big focus this next couple of years on trying to partner up with states here in the midsection of the country to work on some nutrient reductions. As you know, phosphorous and nitrogen are big pollutants that we have to cope with here in the midsection of the country. And we've some real innovative efforts going on, especially in Iowa, that are partly modeled on what Kansas has been up to the last eight or ten years. So trying to work with ag stakeholders, with state environmental agencies, and with state ag departments is going to be a real focus for our Region 7 here in the next couple of years on clean water.
Kelly Lenz: Iowa in particular has seen some problems here over the years, certainly from the standpoint of the EPA. I know there are a lot of moderate-sized feedlots in Iowa that have been hammered by EPA. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources there have been trying to keep up with environmental problems caused by agriculture. EPA's been kind of looking over their shoulder. What's going on now?
Karl Brooks: Well, we'd like to say we've been sitting at their shoulder rather than hammering, looking over their shoulder. We've got a pretty interesting plan that's just about to be signed between EPA and the Iowa Ag Agency on how to improve their work with cattle feeders up in that state, especially the northern and central parts of the state. We found that the state agency didn't have the personnel it needed to work with producers to try to make sure everybody knew what the rules are once you have to get a permit under the Clean Water Act. So the state's likely to be increasing the number of trained folks out there working with producers. They're likely to do a better job of when they do find somebody who's in violation of a permit, making sure they get that corrected – and it represents a pretty important commitment by Iowa to stay up with the Clean Water Act. You probably know, folks know that Iowa's been one of the fastest growing beef producers here over the last 20 years in our part of the country. It's still, it's nowhere near as large as Kansas and Nebraska but it's been increasing really quickly. It's also a pretty wet state. There's a lot of small rivers through the central and northern part of Iowa. So, unlike Nebraska and Kansas where most cattle are fed in pretty dry areas, in Iowa they're fed in pretty wet areas. So we've just got some bigger challenges in that state than we had out here out on the Plains.
Kelly Lenz: Nebraska is also in your jurisdiction, is it not?
Karl Brooks: It is, yes.
Kelly Lenz: In that last year, there was some criticism from a number of individuals, including Senator Johanns up there who was not too happy with EPA feedlot flyovers. Did you get a Christmas card from him?
Karl Brooks: You know, I haven't gone through that stack of mail at the corner of the desk. I don't know, he's probably got a huge Christmas card list. I hope I'm on it at some point. We did have some pretty extensive conversations over the last year with the cattle industry in Nebraska – Nebraska cattle and Senator Johanns. First off, everybody knows we don't fly drones, we've never flown drones, we have no plans to operate drones. The only overflights the Agency ever did were in a little Cessna 182, occasionally in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. I think that conversation though was helpful for EPA and certainly helpful for the cattle industry in Nebraska, because it gave us a chance to walk through some of the concerns that we have about complying with the Clean Water Act. You know, feeders want to be in compliance with the law. They don't want to hassle around with us. They don't want to hassle with the state environmental agency. They want to feed cattle, make money, and move that business to a next generation. We're going in the same direction and I thought the conversations, they started a little bit of a scratchy place. They moved in a pretty productive direction, I thought, by the end of the summer, early part of the fall.
Kelly Lenz: Well, look at the bright side. You don't have to hear criticism of the proposed dust rule. EPA made a decision that's going to keep things the way they are.
Karl Brooks: Kelly, you're absolutely right. Thanks for bringing that up. I think the first time I talked with you almost three years ago, we had some go around about dust. Yeah, for five years the standard for what we call the particulate matter, large particulate matter, will stay the same. Folks in the countryside don't need to worry about anything called farm dust for at least five more years.
Kelly Lenz: And because it's five years, you're probably not going to be with the Agency anymore.
Karl Brooks: I can almost guarantee you I'm not going to be with the Environmental Protection Agency in five more years. No, I've got a few other things to do after this. It's been an enormous opportunity. I've had so much fun. I've learned so much. I've met tremendous people all across the heartland. But yeah, these terms end and I'm not going to be here in five years.
Kelly Lenz: But you are going to be here through the second term of Obama Administration. That's what you told the Administrator.
Karl Brooks: Yeah, I was very pleased to be asked by the Administrator at the end of last year to consider staying on as Region 7 Administrator. I thought about it hard, my wife and I considered it. I've decided to do that. The White House has agreed, so here for the next several years. Folks have got used to me, they'll see me around.
Kelly Lenz: Our guest this morning, on the Ag Issues program, Karl Brooks. He is the Region 7 Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He's joined us two or three times before on this program, and it's always good to see you, Karl.
I want to talk a bit about the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan that was instituted here a couple of years ago. And that, no doubt, is going to continue this season, this burning season.
Karl Brooks: Yeah, it sure will, Kelly. It was one of the things that we really put a lot of effort into over the last several years, starting in Spring 2010. And the results have been very positive. We signed a letter here, just a couple of weeks back. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment indicating that the plan is so strong in all the key elements that, even though there were a couple of ozone exceedances last spring when there was burning in the hills in Wichita and Kansas City, those won't count against the pollution budget for Kansas. And that was an important showing we needed to make to producers who put a lot of time negotiating this plan and expected to see us do that. We were able to do it. I think bodes well for the future.
Kelly Lenz: Let me ask you a rather pointed question: This was a partnership between EPA, agricultural interests and others, where you all sat down at a table. Often EPA is perceived to be a rather cold agency, like the IRS, okay? You and I both know that, right? Is this the beginning, is this indicative of what the Agency is going to do more of in the future?
Karl Brooks: Absolutely, here in this part of the country. Region 7's the heartland states. It's also the ag heartland for the United States. I've always been dedicated to the idea that if you bring conscientious people into a room who've got a common goal, you can sit them down, you can be candid with them, folks can explain where they're coming from, and everybody learns something they didn't know when they sat down at that table. That's what we've found in the Flint Hills. This agency learned a great deal about the role of that foliage in the cattle industry. We also learned about the ecosystem and the tall grass prairie. It was very important for us to learn that. And producers in the Flint Hills learned that there are air quality challenges, that these metro areas that are their neighbors like Kansas City, Wichita, Omaha, Lincoln and took that very seriously. Out of those conversations and especially with some of the input from Kansas legislators – I mean, I really want to call out Senator McGinn from down there in Wichita, Representative Moxley from down in the southern Flint Hills – they were really good about bringing all the parties together and then keeping the conversation going and we're lucky. Kansas State is excellent in trying to do these kinds of collaborative partnerships. That's just the way that they work with their ag stakeholders, and that's how they work with the Environmental Protection Agency.
End of the day, we have a plan that's the first in the nation. It's unique, and I think that's important because the tall grass is unique. The Flint Hills are a unique place to raise cattle and they're a unique ecosystem. And I think that we will see down range, air quality improvements in these Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa metro areas due, in large part, to what we were able to pull together through thousands of hours of conversation out in the hills.
Kelly Lenz: You and Josh Svaty, who is the former Kansas Ag Secretary and now works for Region 7 EPA, made a trip to Denver in just the past few days, right? And you met there with the secretaries of agriculture from several states. What was your message to them, what was their message to you?
Karl Brooks: Well, the message was that the conversation and the collaboration between environmental protectors like EPA and state environmental departments and these state ag departments and their ag constituents is just critical to the continued prosperity that we have enjoyed out here in the heartland. We met up with our EPA regional colleagues in Denver. They brought in the state ag departments from the Rocky Mountains, the Northern Rockies and the Northern Plains. We had three of the four states in Region 7 ag secretaries there.
And we talked about a whole range of issues, Kelly, that are of concern to folks in ag. We talked about water, we talked about air quality, we talked about the drought a lot. All these state ag departments, as you might expect, are pretty focused on what 2013 is going to look like. So we shared information, made sure we were checking in with each other, and we all anticipate this could be a serious challenge facing us in 2013.
Kelly Lenz: I think we are all very nervous about it. Of course, you heard Dave earlier. We mentioned earlier the Flint Hills burning. I don't think you're going to see as much this year, simply because we don't have the moisture.
Karl Brooks: Yeah, we met – in fact, Josh and I met – with the KLA, Aaron Popelka and Mike Beam and some of those folks last week in Topeka just before the Topeka Farm Show, and they project '13 to be a fairly light burning year in eastern Kansas. After that, it's a little hard to tell because you start catching up to the point where you had growth over a three-year cycle of drought. 2014 could be a little bit heavy of a burning year, but no one knows for sure. I mean, the precip thing is the big question mark for everybody.
Kelly Lenz: I asked you during the break about efforts by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to better define what would be waters covered under the Clean Water Act. There's a fair amount of nervousness in the agricultural community about that. And it's no doubt going to be an issue this year. Explain what you're looking at.
Karl Brooks: Sure. Under the Clean Water Act, like with most national laws, there's a coverage of what are called "Waters of the United States," based in the United States Constitution. And that term, Waters of the United States has been one that's been a little bit lacking in clarity over the last 10 to 12 years. There are a couple of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that came down eight to 10 years ago that – I hate to say a terrible pun – but they muddied the water on what it means to be a Water of the United States. Both the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency, for different reasons, need to know more about what that term means. Both agencies have proposed some definitions. We've shared those with everybody interested in water in the country. Gotten a lot of feedback on that. And I'd have to say that conversation goes on, I expect, because it's such an important topic. Anybody involved in agriculture should pay attention to that. When the idea on the new definition came out about 18 months ago – it's important, Kelly – a lot of features of the way we use water here in the heartland were excluded from that definition – farm ponds, irrigation systems. So nearly all of the waters that anybody would be concerned about were not included in that new clearer definition, and that will certainly continue in the coming year.
Kelly Lenz: You're not going to cover muddy footprints?
Karl Brooks: We don't plan to cover muddy footprints in a cornfield, no sir.
Kelly Lenz: Alright. Karl Brooks, in some ways, I kind of wish you were taking over the reins of the EPA back in D.C., because you're a real common-sense guy. But then, we'd lose you in Region 7 and we don't want to do that.
Karl Brooks: Well, Kelly, that's pretty kind. I like working here. I'm very happy here in this part of the country.
Kelly Lenz: Alright. Karl Brooks, a Regional Administrator of the U.S. EPA, our guest this morning on the Ag Issues program. Stay tuned, we'll be back.