Small municipal waste combustors (MWC) are garbage incinerators with the capacity to burn between 35 and 250 tons of refuse each day. There are about 180 such incinerators now operating in the United States; collectively, these facilities emit significant levels of dangerous air toxins, such as mercury, lead, dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
"The emissions from these incinerators pose a serious health threat to our communities," said Jim Pew, attorney for Earthjustice. "Exposure to these emissions can lead to an increased risk of birth defects, cancer, developmental delays and learning disorders."
Under the federal Clean Air Act, EPA was required to set emission standards for small MWC that required the maximum achievable degree of reduction in emissions. At a minimum, the Act required EPA's standards to match the performance of the cleanest units now in operation. But in December 2000, EPA issued standards that flunk both tests. Rather than requiring all MWC to match the performance of the best units, they give EPA's blessing to continued operation of the dirtiest units.
EPA also failed completely to consider pollution prevention measures, such as requirements to separate out the most dangerous substances from the trash that gets burned. More than a decade ago, EPA itself pointed out that such requirements would pass "any imaginable" cost-benefit test because they would yield enormous reductions in toxic emissions at low cost.
"These incinerators make it tougher for kids with asthma to breathe, fill our lungs with toxic chemicals, and poison the food we eat," said Tracy Peel, a NYPIRG staff attorney. "EPA needs to take action to reduce the risks that communities face from toxic air pollution."
The environmental groups argue that the 2000 regulation should be sent back to EPA with instructions for the agency to come up with more protective standards.
The suit is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. [Waste Energy Partners Limited Partnership, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al., D.C. Cir. No. 01-1053 and consolidated cases]