Today, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) introduced a bill that would delay Environmental Protection Agency health standards for industrial incinerators and boilers by at least three years, leading to the premature, preventable deaths of between 7,500 and 19,500 people. But the bill is even more dangerous than that. It provides a free pass for industries to secretly burn dangerous wastes—turpentine, treated wood products, plastics, scrap tires, and spent chemicals and solvents—in facilities that do not have to control, monitor or report their toxic emissions.
These specific exemptions—which make the Collins bill even worse than its counterpart in the House (H.R. 2250), introduced in June by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA)—were supposedly added to win the support of Sen. Wyden.
"This bill from Sens. Collins and Wyden opens the door to a public health disaster," said Earthjustice attorney, James Pew. "We have known for decades that burning these wastes generates highly toxic pollution. That's why the law requires this pollution to be controlled, monitored, and reported to the public. Sen. Collins and the co-sponsors of this bill are attempting to rip out crucial health protections that have been in the Clean Air Act for more than two decades. That may give industry what it wants, but it gives the rest of us more premature death, more respiratory illness, and higher medical bills."
Under the Clean Air Act, any facility that burns waste must meet protective emission standards and report its emissions to the public. Congress made clear that these protections are necessary to safeguard people from the harmful air emissions that waste burning generates, and a federal Court of Appeals has already found that exempting waste burning facilities from these important protections is blatantly illegal. The Collins bill, however, would overturn the Clean Air Act by making it legal for industry to burn the numerous materials listed in the bill without controlling, monitoring or reporting the pollution that results. The bill also sets up a process by which additional materials can be added to the exemption list.
"This bill will allow smokestack industries to burn their wastes next door to schools, daycare centers, churches and hospitals without using currently available off-the-shelf control technology to reduce their toxic emissions. Industries will not even be required to notify their neighbors of the danger," said Jane Williams, chair of Sierra Club's Air Toxics Task Force. "It will expose pregnant mothers and young children to highly toxic pollution that can cause birth defects, cancer, and long term developmental damage. Pure and simple: it is a toxic jailbreak for the most polluting industries in the country, at the expense of the health of America's families."
The exemption for waste burning has largely been ignored in the discussion of the efforts by Sen. Collins and Rep. Griffith to delay the health standards for industrial incinerators and boilers. These standards are already more than a decade overdue. The bills introduced by Sen. Collins and Rep. Griffith could extend that indefinitely. Language in both bills overturns binding compliance deadlines for industry, stating only that the compliance date can come no earlier than five years after a final health standard is issued. The practical result of such a change is that the EPA could set a compliance date at any point after 5 years, with no binding requirements to do so at all.
Every year that passes without health standards for industrial boilers and incinerators imposes a high cost on the health and well-being of the American public: thousands of premature deaths, heart and asthma attacks, and hundreds of thousands of days where people have to miss work or school because they are too sick to function. Compliance costs for industry are estimated at $1.4 billion annually, while projected benefits to the American public could be as high as $54 billion in 2014. Moreover, the American public will shoulder a very toxic new burden if industry is allowed to burn waste in unmonitored, uncontrolled facilities.
"The time for delay is over," said Pew. "These health standards will save lives and money, so the sooner they take effect, the better. Congress is supposed to work for the interests of the American public and voting constituents, not corporate polluters who want a free pass to fill our air with toxic pollutants. These exemptions must be abandoned. Strong standards in accordance with the law are all that is needed."