Country Corner

Mandates crank up the cranks

From 1.6-gallon toilets to dustless combines, we can fix what already works

Somewhere along his 40th spring, a fellow begins to soften. The old crank at the coffee shop doesn’t seem so old anymore. And that crank’s rants begin to make sense. The best opinions are born from experience, and so is the impassioned soliloquy.
I was reminded of this evolution in perspective recently as I drove down a rural road holding forth on the inadequacies of the 1.6-gallon-flush toilet. The lone passenger in the car, being polite and still clinging to a few shreds of affection for me, smiled passively—just like I used to do to that coffee-shop crank.

The 1.6-gallon-flush toilet is perfect fodder for a crank. For one thing, it doesn’t work. Manufacturers have twisted the ceramics and pressurized the flow and made the plumbing look like an M.C. Escher sculpture, but people often resort to multiple flushing to get the same result that one pull of the handle provided on an old-fashioned, 3-gallon model. I’ll leave the math to you as concerns just how much water is being saved.

But it’s the mandate that really gets the crank cranking. Until 1994, when the U.S. Congress began enforcing rules passed in 1992’s Energy Policy Act, you could buy toilets with whatever capacity the manufacturer thought best. Manufacturers found the balance between effectiveness and water conservation to be in the 3-gallon range. The Federalistas’ mandate was 1.6 gallons. And coffee-shop cranks in places that get 40-inches of rain per year wondered out loud (quite out loud) just what kind of water-ration meddling was going on in the world. Object lessons in hoarding and black markets followed.

We are living in another transition led by environmental groups and facilitated by federal rule-making—the banning of iconic and effective tungsten-filament light bulbs and the rise of the compact fluorescent light bulb. The laudable goal of outlawing conventional lightbulbs is energy conservation. Compact fluorescents use less energy, but they perform poorly compared to tungsten-filament lights in many conditions, and they happen to contain mercury.

Any good crank will tell you that mercury is one of the most hated compounds among environmentalists, and the mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs will end up in our water supply by way of leaching through defective landfills. It takes the EPA 1,100 words to explain proper disposal of a broken compact fluorescent bulb. It takes the common consumer no time to ignore it all, just tossing the bulb, mercury and all, in the trash. And, recent studies show that the energy savings promised from the bulbs was over estimated. That’s crank manna.

And that brings us to the EPA’s recent coughing over farmland dust. As this was written, we still awaited EPA’s release of modifications on last year’s proposed dust regulations. If there aren’t significant changes to those proposed rules, new restrictions would put grain harvest and gravel-road driving in violation of federal limits on, cough, “fugitive dust.” The limits, measured in micrograms per cubic meter, would go from current levels of 150µg/m3 to just 65-85µg/m3.
That reduction has farm-state legislators on both sides of the political aisle writing what could be construed as cranky letters to EPA chief Sheila Jackson.

Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley put it this way: “Once again, the agency seems completely oblivious to the huge impact the rules and regulations it releases have on the general public and agriculture in particular. It defies common sense that the EPA would regulate that a farmer must keep the dust from his combine between his fence rows.”
Common sense would build toilets and lightbulbs that work too, Senator.

I like the cut of Grassley’s jib on this issue, but a senator writing a cranky letter as the EPA rolls out untested and likely unenforceable regulations is to shove theatrically on the barn door with the horses long gone. Congress created bureaucratic hydras such as the EPA and so long as bureaucratic rule making has been quiet, incremental and behind the scenes, Congress has been happy to live with the result. At least until the crank vote came out last November.

Commentators call that 2010 fall election historical. It may have been so statistically, but can you gather much confidence in the fact that the EPA and other bureaucracies will be reigned in?

My bet is they won’t and that common sense and commerce will be worse for it, all of which will make more company for us cranks.

You want to hear real a crank? Fast forward a few years and listen to a farmer trying to change a combine’s overly complicated dust collector as rain threatens his harvest season. That’ll be a loud racket, but not nearly as loud as the laughing emanating from Brazil.

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