EPA Rule Opens Loophole For Toxic Air Emitters

Rule allows toxic air facilities to ignore own contingency plans


Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics (661) 273-3098
Kelly Haragan, Environmental Integrity Project (202) 263-4449
Marti Sinclair, Sierra Club (513) 761-6140 x28

An Environmental Protection Agency rule allows polluters to avoid compliance with toxic air pollution limits at the worst possible time: when control or process equipment has been shut down and toxic emissions are skyrocketing. Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club submitted formal objections today, slamming the rule as illegal and irresponsible.

“The Bush Administration has once again shown its disregard for public safety and its lack of concern about the poor and disenfranchised,” said Jane Williams, a national leader and air toxics expert for the Sierra Club.

It is well known that industrial facilities’ worst toxic emissions often occur when their equipment malfunctions or when they are starting up and shutting down the plant. During these periods, toxic pollution can exceed normal emissions by orders of magnitude. For example, one facility in Texas released over 91 thousand pounds of benzene and 83 thousand pounds of butadiene, both carcinogens, during these periods in 2003 alone. Instead of controlling these toxic emissions and protecting public health, EPA has proposed a rule that would enlarge the loophole for these emissions. “The Administration’s response to this problem is to give polluters a free license to pollute at these times, and then help these same polluters hide their paper trail from the public,” Williams said.

“Until now, plants had to at least have a plan for minimizing toxic emissions during malfunctions, startups and shutdowns and they had to follow that plan,” said Kelly Haragan, counsel for Environmental Integrity Project. “EPA now says they don’t even have to follow their own plan. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free-card for the most dangerous and irresponsible polluters.”

To make matters even worse, EPA’s rule would prevent a plant’s neighbors from even learning what plan a toxic air emitter has in place to limit huge increases in dangerous toxic chemicals. “EPA is saying that people have no right to know about the toxic emissions that are coming right into their back yards, schools and churches,” said Sierra Club Air Toxics Chairperson Marti Sinclair.

While catastrophic malfunctions are always a concern, a facility can have even a minor problem with a filter or a smokestack scrubber that could easily increase emissions of toxic chemicals like benzene by as much as ten times allowed emission levels. Residents living near facilities that are subject to MACT standards (Maximum Achievable Control Technologies) are at highest risk. MACT standard facilities include power plants, refineries, chemical manufacturers, and a potpourri of other highly toxic facilities, both large and small.

“Communities made up of people of color and poor people are especially hurt by the Bush Administration’s rule,” pointed out Williams. “The Administration knows perfectly well that these are the communities that are predominantly located near the worst toxic sources. It chose to ignore a standing executive order and not even look into this further injustice.”

“EPA has just opened up a huge loophole in the standards that control toxic emissions from chemical plants, refineries, and virtually every other toxic emitter you could think of,” said Sinclair.

“What the Clean Air Act says is that toxic polluters have to comply with toxic emission standards at all times,” said Haragan. “What EPA is saying is that they have to comply, except during startups, shutdowns and malfunctions, during which time there’s no limit to how much toxic pollution communities will be exposed to. A kid’s body doesn’t care whether the benzene he breathes is from regular industry operations or a startup, it can still cause cancer.”

Citizens living near these facilities have a right to know that they are going to be protected should a malfunction occur. “The more the public is able to see these SSM plans and understand what is being done to protect their health, the more likely these facilities are to comply with these plans and reduce toxic air emissions,” Williams said.

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