Skip to main content

Air Toxics

Toxic air pollution from refineries, power plants, cement kilns and plywood manufacturers threatens our environment and our health. Dioxins can cause cancer. Mercury damages young and unborn children, impeding development and lowering brain functions. Hydrogen chloride burns the eyes and causes skin irritations. Yet these pollutants and dozens more like them contaminate the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.  With our government's blessing, power plants, cement kilns, refineries and many other  large and small industrial sources spew them constantly into the air.  Once in the environment, many of these poisons -- mercury being a prime example -- persist and work their way up the food chain.  Even pollutants that don't persist or bioaccumulate pose a threat, however.  Many toxic pollutants are emitted so constantly and in such large quantities that the air we breath is never free of them.  Many dry cleaners emit perchloroethylene, an eye and skin irritant that can cause liver and kidney damage. Gas-burning vehicles -- cars, trucks, snowmobiles, and lawnmowers, just to name a few -- belch out benzene, a known cancer-causing pollutant. Cement kilns collectively churn out more than 15,000 tons of hydrogen chloride and over 12,000 pounds of mercury annually. Waste incineration is responsible for more than 80 percent of all dioxin emissions.

In 1990, Congress recognized the importance of protecting us from the harms of toxic air pollution, amending the Clean Air Act to include specific limits and deadlines to regulate these harmful pollutants. Under siege from a well financed polluter lobby, however, the Environmental Protection Agency has fallen drastically behind in setting standards.  To make EPA do its job, Earthjustice repeatedly has brought EPA to court and has obtained enforceable court ordered deadlines.

When EPA eventually does issue air toxics standards, they are far less protective than the Clean Air Act requires.  So Earthjustice has strategically challenged the most important standards and has won court decisions requiring EPA to redo its rules for medical waste incinerators, municipal waste incinerators, hazardous waste incinerators, cement kilns, and polyvinyl chloride plastics plants.  Earthjustice currently has nearly two-dozen similar challenges in court. But the fight for clean air doesn't stop in the courts. Earthjustice, in representing other national conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, and National Wildlife Federation is moving the fight to include editorial writing, paid advertising, grassroots organizing, and legislative advocacy. Our campaign to control toxic air pollution also involves organizing with local groups committed to cleaning up emissions from their neighborhood cement kiln or PVC plant. We have worked with a small local group in eastern Maine to help them convince a local cement manufacturer to cap a 150,000-ton pile of cement kiln dust. We have helped activists in Gainesville, FL, write editorials opposing expansion of a nearby cement kiln. We have run ads in local newspapers calling attention to national emission rules that simply don't follow the law. Our attorney has written opinion pieces drawing attention to the need for regulations that protect against harmful mercury emissions from power plants. Our communications team has created multimedia campaigns using video and audio interviews and researched emissions from various facilities to notify communities of the dangers that exist in their own backyards. Along with some of our client groups, we have organized letter-writing campaigns, compiling tens of thousands of comments to EPA asking for stronger protections against some of the more dangerous pollutants and industries. Our legislative team has fought on Capitol Hill against efforts by Congress to undermine our victories with poorly designed legislation.

In this section of our website, we hope to illustrate our efforts thus far, highlight some of our victories, and detail what needs to be done in the future to guarantee that our health and our natural areas are preserved.