Clean Air Act Turns 19; Important Clean Air Milestones Reached, More Remain

EPA has made strides on incinerators, cement kilns just in the last 10 months alone


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 221

Take a deep breath, and say Happy Birthday. The Clean Air Act — our nation’s strongest law for cleaning up toxic air pollution — just turned 19 years old.

The first iteration of the Clean Air Act became law in 1955 but it wasn’t until decades later, November 15, 1990, that the law became what it is now. The amendments focused on reducing smog and eliminating emissions from industrial sources, essentially a more pervasive protector of clean air. At the time, Congress recognized that the Clean Air Act wasn’t achieving the goals of cleaner air, and millions of tons of toxic pollutants continued to rain down upon communities. Upon signing the amendments, President George H. W Bush said: “This bill means cleaner cars, cleaner power plants, cleaner factories and cleaner fuels; it means a cleaner America.”

“There is no better tool for cleaning up toxic air pollution than the Clean Air Act,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. “It has accomplished great things in the last 19 years but, unfortunately, under previous administrations, EPA too often dragged its heals and tried to avoid issuing the strong standards that the Act requires. The Obama administration, however, has hit the ground running. The good work they have already done means cleaner air, fewer deaths, and better health.”

Among other things, EPA has taken action this year on:

  • Medical Waste Incinerators – New rules from the Environmental Protection Agency will cut toxic air pollution from medical waste incinerators and eliminate a loophole that allowed incinerators to exceed pollution limits during startups, shutdowns, and malfunctions.
  • Cement Kilns – This past April, EPA proposed new standards to reduce mercury pollution from cement kilns with new regulations. The standards will cut mercury pollution from up to 93 percent at approximately 100 cement plants across the country. EPA estimates that proposed cuts to just two of these pollutants — particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide — could result in avoiding 1,600 premature deaths each year.

Much work still remains to be done, including:

  • Coal-burning power plants, which are the nation’s largest unregulated source of mercury pollution, and also emit enormous quantities of lead, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals. Some 600 existing power plants spew at least 48 tons of mercury, alone, into the air each year. They also emit enormous amounts of lead, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals. In October, EPA agreed to issue rules that will bring these giants’ toxic air pollution under control by November 2011.
  • Hazardous Waste Combustors – More than 250 plants around the country burn hazardous wastes. Their emissions include toxic metals such as mercury and arsenic as well as toxic organic pollutants like dioxins and PCBs. After issuing two sets of illegally weak standards in 1999 and 2005, EPA has at last agreed to do the job right.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride Plants – In September, Earthjustice and other advocacy groups reached a settlement with EPA, which agreed to begin regulating toxic chemicals emitted from PVC plants beginning July 29, 2011. The settlement marks a key victory for several Gulf Coast communities who have spent decades living near these plants, which pump some 500,000 pounds of vinyl chloride — a known human carcinogen — and many other toxins into the atmosphere a year. The PVC industry’s air emissions have remained largely unregulated for decades.
  • Industrial Boilers and Incinerators – Due to stalling and evasion by previous administrations, toxic emissions from more than 100,000 industrial boilers and incinerators remain unregulated 19 years after the Clean Air Act took on its current form. But the Obama administration has committed to propose controls by April and finalize them by December 2010. A Bush-era loophole now under review by the Obama administration involves exempting industrial incinerators from regulations by issuing a definition of “solid waste” that excludes tires, spent plastics, spent solvents, and many other industrial wastes that burn with especially dirty emissions.

The Obama administration has a lot of work ahead and must redo more than 25 inadequate air toxics standards issued by previous administrations. Many of the air toxics rules issued by Presidents Bush and Clinton were far less protective than the Clean Air Act required. The Obama administration is reviewing these rules in response to a petition for environmental groups requesting that they be brought up the Act’s high standards.

“When the Clean Air Act as we know it was passed 19 years ago, it set a high precedent of bipartisan good sense,” said Pew. “The current administration has a comprehensive blueprint to follow to achieve even more clean air milestones in the future.”

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