In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule that aims to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from the on-site power plants (known as “industrial boilers”) that are used at refineries, chemical plants, paper mills and other major sources of pollution. The EPA has estimated that the rule (known as the “boiler MACT”) would save thousands of lives every year and yield economic benefits that far exceed its costs. But in recent months, industry lobbyists have worked to kill it.
The potential benefits of the proposed rule are significant. Based on the reductions in particulate matter pollution alone, the EPA estimates that between 1,900 and 4,800 lives will be saved every year once the rule takes effect in 2013. The monetary value of projected annual benefits to health ranges between $14 and $38 billion dollars a year, savings which outweigh the rule’s annual cost of $2.9 billion by at least 4-to-1 and as much as 12-to-1.
“By reducing fine particulate matter pollution, this rule will save many lives every year,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. “And by reducing industrial facilities’ emissions of mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic, which can cause cancer, birth defects, and other horrific health effects, the rule will also bring badly needed relief to overburdened fenceline communities.”
The boiler MACT as currently written is projected to reduce:
- mercury emissions by 15,000 pounds per year;
- emissions of other toxic metals (including chromium, lead, and arsenic) by 3,200 tons per year;
- dioxin emissions by 722 grams per year;
- emissions of volatile organic compounds (including benzene and formaldehyde) by 1,800 tons per year;
- hydrogen chloride emissions by 37,000 tons per year;
- particulate matter emissions by 50,000 tons per year;
- and sulfur dioxide emissions by 340,000 tons per year.
As the EPA points out in the proposed rule, the public health benefits from reducing industrial boilers’ staggering emissions of metals, acid gases, and toxic organic pollutants like dioxins and volatile organic compounds have never even been calculated.
Industry lobbyists have been pushing claims that the rule will cause extensive job losses. Those claims rest on self-serving assertions that the cost of control technology would be far higher than the EPA has estimated and that individual facilities will choose to shut down rather than clean up or switch to cleaner fuels. Citing several studies, the EPA concluded that the rule would have little or no impact on jobs and could yield a net jobs increase.
Industry lobbyists also are seeking so-called “risk-based exemptions” for facilities’ emissions of hydrogen chloride, an acid gas corrosive to human tissues that has been listed by Congress as a hazardous air pollutant. Such exemptions are unlawful. Further, because limits on facilities’ emissions of hydrogen chloride are the means by which the rule achieves control of several other pollutants – including hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen cyanide, as well as sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter – exempting sources from meeting hydrogen chloride standards would significantly diminish the rule’s health benefits. In particular, it would cause many Americans to die prematurely every year, by virtually eliminating the rule’s reductions in fine particulate matter.
“Reducing toxic emissions from industrial boilers is critical if we are to reduce the public health impacts from these sources,” said Jane Williams, Chair of the Sierra Club’s Air Toxics Task Force. “The Clean Air Act required these cuts ten years ago, by November, 2000. The EPA has proposed a rule that seeks to meet the Act’s requirements for these emissions reductions, and now industry lobbyists have resorted to old-style disinformation to try to kill the rule off – just like the auto industry tried to kill off seatbelt requirements and the oil industry tried to kill off lead-free gasoline. Americans need the sensible and cost-effective health protections that Congress promised 20 years ago so they can breathe easier and lead healthier lives.”