WASHINGTON — Imagine treating milk the same as the toxic sludge now washing up on Gulf Coast beaches.
It may sound absurd, but some dairy producers are worried that it could happen under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations intended to prevent oil spills from polluting waterways.
“It's another example of an environmental law where it's really meant to target heavy industry but actually has some farm implications,” said Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.
The EPA program in question falls under the Clean Water Act and requires owners of large oil storage tanks to develop plans to prevent and handle any spills.
Milk contains a certain percentage of animal fat, which is considered a non-petroleum oil, and therefore bulk milk storage tanks near waterways could be subject to the regulations.
Farm groups say there's no reason to put milk under the same heading as oil — who's ever seen a milk-covered pelican struggle to fly? After all, milk is more than 80 percent water, said Stacey Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Dairy Association.
“That's very concerning, that we would ever find milk and oil in the same category,” she said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., grew up on an Iowa dairy farm and said he never imagined the milk from his family's cows could be lumped in with oil.
“We drank that milk. We thought it was good for you — and it is,” Johanns said.
Johanns, who was secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush, said he would back legislation to ensure that milk is exempted from the regulations.
“This is the wackiest thing I've ever heard,” Johanns said. “The EPA just doesn't get it.”
The milk-and-oil issue is another chapter in the long-standing tension between the EPA and the farm sector, which feels it often gets caught up unfairly in environmental regulations.
While some of those issues are open to fair debate, no one seems to be seriously suggesting that milk should get the same classification as oil.
And the EPA already has a proposed an exemption for milk. Still, some lawmakers have grown impatient and argue that the agency is taking too long to finalize the exemption.
The World-Herald requested an interview with EPA officials about the situation, but the agency provided only a brief statement indicating that it expects to extend the date by which milk storage tanks would have to comply with the rules until after a final determination is made on the exemption.
Marty Schwager, national policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said that treating milk the same as oil is simply illogical — and that the group hopes EPA gives final approval to the exemption.
Several House members have taken up the cause.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., has introduced legislation that would require the EPA to exempt milk from the regulations. She has said it's ridiculous to suggest that milk presents the same dangers as oil.
“The federal government's focus on the Gulf oil spill has been brought into question, and one has to wonder if ridiculous requirements like this are a reason why,” Miller has said. “The EPA has an important job, and it should properly place its focus where it belongs — on spilled oil, not spilled milk.”
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