Defending EPA's New Medical Waste Incinerator Rule

Industry fights rule that will reduce 393,000 lbs of toxic air pollution a year


Katie Renshaw, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 x 220
Colin O’Brien, Natural Resources Defense Counsel, (202) 289-2426
Jane Williams, Sierra Club, (661) 510-3412

Strong new toxic air pollution rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency on medical waste incinerators are not being well-received by industry groups. On September 15, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency issued standards that finally met the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act. The rule came after nearly a decade of legal action by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club. On December 7, 2009, the Medical Waste Institute and the Energy Recovery Council filed a challenge in the D.C. Circuit Court seeking to weaken regulations for hospital, medical, and infectious waste incinerators.

Late Wednesday, the Sierra Club represented by Earthjustice, joined by Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a motion to enter the case and defend the Obama administration rule.

“Hospitals and medical centers should be at the forefront of efforts to protect public health,” said Katie Renshaw of Earthjustice, who filed the motion. “The new rules on toxic air pollution from medical waste incinerators will save lives.”

Marti Sinclair, Chair of Sierra Club’s Clean Air Team commented, “In Florida, we have seen how strong toxic air regulations work in the real world. Rule changes forced reductions in mercury emissions from South Florida’s medical waste incinerators. Today, mercury levels in the Everglades’ birds and fish have plummeted by 75 percent. The jury is in: Reducing toxic air pollution protects both people and wildlife.”

The new rule reduces medical waste incinerators’ emissions of mercury, dioxins, lead, and other dangerous pollutants by 393,000 lbs per year. Additionally, the rule mandates:

  • A significant reduction in the amount of mercury that can be released from incinerators
  • Enhanced testing of small, rural, medical waste incinerators, resulting in better enforcement in rural communities
  • Significant reductions in dioxins, lead and other major pollutants, all of which will bring increased health benefits to communities hosting medical waste incinerators

In addition, the rule eliminates a loophole that previously allowed medical waste incinerators to exceed emission limits whenever they started up, shut down, or malfunctioned.

Environmental Background

Dioxin is the most potent carcinogen ever evaluated by EPA. Mercury is known to damage the central nervous systems of unborn babies and children, resulting in symptoms similar to congenital cerebral palsy. Lead is a probable human carcinogen that also can cause developmental damage in children and babies as well as brain damage, kidney damage, and damage to the reproductive system. Even small amounts of these pollutants can cause cancer or similarly tragic health effects. In addition to dioxin, mercury, and lead, medical waste incinerators emit several other harmful pollutants such as cadmium, hydrogen chloride, and soot.

Legal Background

Environmental groups challenged the EPA’s 1997 rule for medical waste incinerators as unlawfully weak. In 1999, the United States Court of Appeals described the agency’s rulemaking as “hopelessly irrational” and sent the 1997 rule back to the agency for change or explanation. The Bush administration ignored the 1999 court order, forcing Sierra Club and Earthjustice back to court in 2005 and resulting in a court-ordered deadline that was met by the Obama administration in September 2009.

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