Clearing the Air of Toxic Pollutants

New EPA rules will cut air toxics, but a loophole leaves some vulnerable

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Americans can breathe a sigh of relief today, thanks to new rules announced by the Environmental Protection Agency that will reduce toxic air pollution in communities across the country. The rules come three years after Earthjustice and others stopped the Bush administration from deregulating toxic emissions from industrial boilers, incinerators, and process heaters.

These sources may sound obscure, but consider that highly polluting materials like coal, discarded tires, used chemicals and other industrial wastes are burned in boilers and solid waste incinerators at hundreds of thousands of facilities in the U.S. Chances are, you or someone you know lives, works, or commutes by one of these facilities, perhaps without even knowing it.

Cancer, reproductive disorders, birth defects and other serious health problems can be caused by the toxic air pollutants from these sources. Now, many of these facilities will be subject to strong pollution controls.

According to the EPA, industrial boilers and process heaters represent the second largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S. (coal-fired power plants are the first). It’s projected that emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can cause developmental defects in unborn babies and small children, will be reduced by 8 tons per year as a result of the new rules. That’s more than all of the mercury coming from the cement industry, another major source.

The rules are expected to prevent between 2,000 and 5,000 premature deaths every year, 1,300 chronic bronchitis cases, 3,200 E.R. visits, 33,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 70,000 missed days of work. In short, a lot of people are going to be much better off thanks to these rules.

Unfortunately, the news isn’t all good. Along with the aforementioned rules on industrial boilers and solid waste incinerators, EPA proposed a rather esoteric rule that defines what constitutes non-hazardous solid waste. What’s important is that EPA’s proposal could institute a loophole, long sought after by industry groups, that would allow thousands of facilities that create waste like spent chemicals and solvents, industrial sludges, and used oil to burn such materials on site without any pollution control requirements. That means toxic air pollutants from such burning could be released without limit, and local communities would have no recourse for learning the identity or quantity of the pollutants to which they are exposed.

As EPA receives public comment on these proposals, it is possible they may do the right thing and close this loophole. We’ll keep you posted on ways to send EPA your input in the weeks ahead.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.