U.S. EPA to Review Standards for Hazardous Waste Combustors


Failure to regulate has allowed release of tons of toxic pollution released annually


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 237

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to a new review of a Bush-era rule that fails to provide adequate controls on highly toxic emissions released by facilities that burn hazardous waste.

Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, challenged the rule when it was issued by the Bush administration in late 2005.

“Facilities that burn hazardous waste spew poisons into backyards and playgrounds in communities across the United States,” said Marti Sinclair, chair of Sierra Club’s Clean Air Team. “Before her first taste of milk, an American infant has already received an in utero slug of toxic chemicals which have passed from hazardous waste combustor emissions into the food chain, from the food chain into her mother’s body, and, crossing the placenta, from her mother’s body into her own.  We are counting on EPA to end this toxic pattern by drawing up some decent, lawful emissions standards.”

Sierra Club is seeking a standard that would substantially reduce emissions of dioxins, mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, and other toxic substances that are emitted by the approximately 265 facilities that burn hazardous waste in America. These facilities include incinerators, some cement kilns, and many industrial boilers. A related rule that EPA proposed in May for cement kilns that do not burn hazardous waste will reduce toxic emissions by approximately 75-95%, saving 600-1600 lives and billions of dollars each year.

“By issuing a rule for hazardous waste combustors that complies with the Clean Air Act — instead of the illegal rules previously issued by the Bush administration — EPA could provide similar benefits for people in communities exposed to toxic pollution from hazardous waste burning incinerators, cement kilns, and boilers,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. “Families who live near these combustors are at a higher risk for cancer and other illnesses. It has been a long struggle to bring these polluters under control and we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re pleased EPA is finally moving in the right direction.”

In 2001, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed that EPA’s first rule for hazardous waste combustors was flatly unlawful. Under the Bush administration, EPA committed to issue a replacement rule by 2005. However, the 2005 replacement standards were unlawful as well and the Bush administration was forced to admit in 2008 that more than half of the emission standards it established were defective.

The Obama administration has now reviewed the rule and determined that all the emission standards in the rule need to be reexamined.

“Cement kilns, incinerators and other facilities that burn hazardous waste are putting much of that waste into the air and distributing into neighboring communities,” said Sinclair. “When they burn waste with mercury in it, they contaminate their neighbors with mercury. When they burn lead and arsenic, they expose their neighbors to lead and arsenic. At a minimum, these facilities should have to operate as cleanly as possible. Under the previous administration, they were permitted to avoid installing the best controls and to emit far more toxic pollution than the law allows.”

“Hazardous waste is not burned in the comfortable suburbs,” said Jane Williams, Sierra Club’s waste chair. “The vast majority of it is burned in poor communities, and much of it in minority communities that are already badly overburdened with toxic pollution. Treating these communities as our dumping grounds for environmental toxins is not acceptable, and we are glad that Administrator Jackson has put us on course to stop this injustice.”

Earthjustice and Sierra Club have been committed to reducing toxic emissions from a host of industrial polluters such as PVC and plywood manufacturers, cement kilns, power plants, industrial waste incinerators and mobile sources such as cars, buses and trucks. In all of these cases, the Bush administration’s dismissal of federal law, court orders and meaningful pollution reduction have forced conservation, public health and community groups into litigation to seek stronger clean air protections.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.