Each year, the nation's 20 iron and steel manufacturing plants emit approximately 360 tons of toxic metals into the air, including close to 110 tons of lead and chromium and 250 tons of manganese. Steel mills also emit highly toxic and persistent organic pollutants, including dioxins, polycyclic organic matter, and benzene. Even in minute amounts, lead, chromium, dioxins, polycyclic organic matter and benzene can cause cancer, birth defects, brain damage, kidney damage and other serious adverse health effects. Manganese can cause a variety of adverse neurological effects.
Until now, steel mills' toxic emissions have not been subject to any federal standards -- a problem that the Environmental Protection Agency addressed only after being compelled to do so by a previous Earthjustice suit. Even now, however, the agency's regulations are far weaker than the law requires and inadequate to protect public health and the environment. On behalf of the Sierra Club, Earthjustice has asked the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to send EPA back to the drawing board.
"Each and every one of EPA's air toxics standards for industrial facilities that has been challenged by environmentalists has been rejected by the courts as inadequate," said Jim Pew, attorney for Earthjustice. "This one is no exception. Although Congress required the EPA to set standards that match the emission levels achieved by the cleanest mills, these don't come close. Further, they leave steel mills' emissions of several highly toxic pollutants -- including dioxins and polycyclic organic matter -- completely uncontrolled."
"EPA's inadequate standards allow toxic metals to pollute our air, our lungs and our communities," said Jane Williams, Chair of Sierra Club's Toxics Committee. "Three hundred tons of toxic metals do not just disappear when they go out the smokestack; they fall back onto our lands and waters, where they persist in the environment and poison our food supply. It is emissions like these that make the fish in our waters inedible and threaten our children's health in communities across the country."
"What is so frustrating," said Pew, "is that some steel mills are already doing an effective job of controlling their emissions, and they have demonstrated that much cleaner operations are possible. If EPA would just require the other mills to match their performance -- which is what the Clean Air Act required -- toxic emissions would be greatly decreased."
The challenge to the steel mill standards is one of a number of lawsuits filed by Earthjustice over inadequate air toxics regulations. Earlier this week, Earthjustice and Sierra Club filed a petition for review of standards for the nation's 169 existing brick and clay kilns, which emit about 3,900 tons per year of hydrogen fluoride, 2,600 tons per year of hydrogen chloride, and six tons per year of various metals, including mercury and lead.