Victory for Americans and Their Lungs Over Toxic Air Pollution

EPA abandons a rule permitting unregulated burning of hazardous waste

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Juliet once said to Romeo: "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Were Juliet as concerned by toxic air pollution as love, the fair Capulet might have instead philosophized: "That which we call hazardous waste by any other name would pollute as much when burned."

I have a good reason for butchering Shakespeare’s poetry. Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally abandoned a dangerous exemption that allowed industrial polluters to store, transport, and burn hazardous waste without meeting crucial requirements to protect public health and the environment.

How could they do this, you ask? It’s all in a name. Chemical manufacturers and other industry groups asked the Bush administration for permission to call more than 100,000 tons of hazardous waste by a different name: "fuel." Calling hazardous waste "fuel" would allow many facilities to burn these wastes while escaping tough pollution control requirements that Congress enacted to protect people from toxic pollution. But as Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew said, "Calling hazardous waste a ‘fuel’ doesn’t make it any less polluting when burned in incinerators and boilers across the country."

In January 2009, the Bush administration—doing what it did best—granted this last-minute favor to industry. Soon after, Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of Sierra Club and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network to protect people from this dangerous regulatory sleight-of-hand. While the case was pending, the EPA under new leadership announced plans to scrap the misguided exemption altogether. Yesterday, they followed through on those plans.

"This is a great victory for Americans and their lungs," said Pew. "EPA Administrator Jackson’s withdrawal of this rule demonstrates a commitment to protecting public health that should have Americans breathing a little easier." I imagine that Juliet would agree.

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.