EPA Cracks Down on Toxic Air Pollution


New rules will dramatically cut toxic air pollution, but potential exemptions leave many communities vulnerable


Sam Edmondson, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700, ext. 6705

Three years after environmental groups blocked the Bush administration’s attempt to deregulate toxic emissions from industrial incinerators, boilers and process heaters, the Obama administration has proposed strong new replacement rules today. The new rules will substantially reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants and the risk of serious health effects like cancer, reproductive disorders, and birth defects in communities across the country.

The rules will require significant pollution reductions at an estimated 14,000 boilers at 1,600 facilities, and are expected to prevent between 2,000 and 5,000 premature deaths every year, 1,300 chronic bronchitis cases, 3,200 hospital emergency room visits, 33,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 70,000 missed days of work. The rules will cut hundreds of tons of toxic metals emitted by industrial boilers and process heaters including emissions of lead, arsenic, and chromium, all of which are associated with cancer and other serious adverse health effects. They will also reduce nationwide emissions of mercury – an extremely potent neurotoxin that can cause developmental defects in unborn babies and young children – by 8 tons per year, approximately 75 percent.

"These reductions are excellent news for communities across the country," said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. "The toxic pollution from these uncontrolled boilers has gone on for far too long, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has shown a real commitment to public health by acting to clean them up at last."

"Emission reductions at boilers and incinerators are an important environmental justice victory because they will reduce toxic air pollution in communities where the impacts are most severe," said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s Air Toxics Taskforce.

"This is a positive development, especially for students at the more than 60 colleges that still have coal boilers on campus. The requirement to clean up these aging boilers provides even greater incentive for transitioning to cleaner energy options that will really benefit the students and the surrounding communities," said Kim Teplitzky who leads the Sierra Club’s Campuses Beyond Coal Campaign.

EPA also proposed a related rule to define non-hazardous solid waste. Industry groups have long pushed for a narrow definition rule that would allow thousands of facilities that burn spent chemicals and solvents, scrap tires, scrap plastics, industrial sludges, and used oil to avoid pollution control requirements. Although today’s proposal would limit this loophole to facilities that burn their own wastes on site, it is likely that thousands of such facilities are currently operating. The proposal would allow these facilities to emit toxic pollution without limit and would prevent citizens from learning either the identity or quantity of the toxins to which they are exposed.

"We are deeply concerned that EPA has not scrapped this Bush-era loophole altogether," said Pew.

However, EPA left open the possibility that it will change course and close the loophole.

"EPA is now at a crossroads," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "The agency can move forward to protect all the communities that face toxic pollution from waste burning or it can return to a Bush-era policy of granting pollution control exemptions at the cost of families’ safety. We know this Administrator understands communities’ need for protection from toxic pollution and we are confident she will get the final decision right."

"Today’s rules promise to be among the most protective, cost-effective clean air rules adopted by the Obama EPA," said John Walke, Clean Air Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "To be sure, the rules need strengthening in places to satisfy the law and public health needs; but EPA deserves credit for cutting dangerous air pollution and making us all safer."

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.