Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed long-standing guidance that helps limit hazardous pollution such as mercury and lead from major sources like power plants, large industrial facilities and vehicles. The end result? Potentially, the biggest increase in hazardous air pollution this country has seen in decades, and environmental justice communities are likely to bear the brunt of it.
A history of clearing the air
The new guidance is bad news. It creates a huge loophole through which companies can emit more hazardous pollution with less scrutiny from the EPA and the move breaks with more than 20 years of precedent in implementing the Clean Air Act.
During these last two decades we’ve seen impressive reductions in many types of harmful air pollutants that cause serious health problems, including heart and lung diseases, cancer, and the exacerbation of asthma. In this case, under the Clean Air Act, people are protected from major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).
Hazardous air pollutants, also known as air toxics, are a category of pollutants emitted from power plants and industrial facilities that pose very significant health risks. From the Clean Air Act, these are pollutants “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental or ecological effects.” They are regulated at the source, meaning the EPA limits the amount of these pollutants that individual industrial facilities can emit.
These regulations have been incredibly successful. By requiring major pollution sources to employ control technologies (specifically the Maximum Achievable Control Technology or MACT), pollution from these sources has been reduced substantially. When fully implemented, these standards are projected to reduce annual air toxics emissions from industrial sources by about 1.7 million tons. Already, mobile source emissions have been reduced by approximately 50 percent—about 1.5 million tons of HAPs a year—since 1990. With additional fleet turnover, these reductions are expected to increase to 80 percent by the year 2030. But these gains are now in jeopardy.
Ignoring evidence, giving favors to industry
The Trump administration has issued new guidance on interpretation of this rule. Under the new guidance, major pollution sources would be able to avoid employing the maximum achievable control technology if they can demonstrate that they’ve reduced their emissions below the amount that qualifies them as a “major” source according to the Clean Air Act. Then they could be put in the laxer category of an “area” source, a category reserved for smaller sources of pollution which aren’t subject to the same kinds of pollution reduction requirements as major sources. Area sources are typically smaller facilities like laundromats and restaurants, and regulatory control is handled more at the state, county and tribal levels, rather than by the EPA.
In other words, because the policy has been effective in reducing pollution from major sources, it shouldn’t apply to them. This would, in turn, mean that these facilities would no longer need to use the most effective pollution control technologies and instead would be allowed to emit more pollution as long as they stay below the threshold for major sources.
With pollution control technologies advancing all the time, why wouldn’t we want facilities to use cutting-edge equipment and practices? Why wouldn’t we want to reap the health benefits of continuous reductions in pollution? Instead, the latest EPA guidance will likely cause hazardous pollution to rise significantly, and it also hurts businesses that develop innovative pollution control technologies.
EPA decisionmakers in 1995 noticed this potential loophole and issued guidance in response. They stated that the policy of keeping facilities labeled as major sources even after they meet requirements “ensures that MACT emissions reductions are permanent, and that the health and environmental protection provided by MACT standards is not undermined.”
The Trump administration is ignoring this consideration of public health and environmental protection by allowing companies to backslide into less pollution control. And importantly, this weaker air pollution policy will impact some people more than others.
Hotspots and fencelines: disproportionate impacts of hazardous air pollutants
One challenge with US air pollution regulation (that existed long before the Trump administration) has been its scope. Federal air pollution policies are generally not designed to capture and control pollution hotspots, which are subject to air pollution from multiple sources in close proximity. Pollutants like HAPs are regulated at the source, and other pollutants like ozone are regulated in the ambient air—i.e., we regulate the average pollution across a city any given day or hour, not any one spot at any one time.
The consequence of this gap is hotspots—places that tend to have higher air pollution because of their location near multiple sources. Communities in places like this have long worried about cumulative impacts. Sure, individual facilities might be meeting standards, but what is the impact of breathing air from many facilities all together day in and day out? Studies have shown the health risks of cumulative impacts, and many communities have long raised concerns about their own health as a result (see here, here, and here, for example). And who is facing these impacts? Those near industrial pollution tend to be low-income communities and communities of color.
Allowing polluters to avoid protecting public health
This is what makes the new guidance so problematic. The Trump administration’s move to weaken protections from major pollution sources will hit hardest the people that are already burdened by industrial air pollution. Communities that are already exposed to more hazardous air pollutants than elsewhere now stand to get more pollution emitted into the air they breathe and the water they drink. The EPA is rolling back this more than 20-year-old guidance to allow major pollution sources to expose these communities to greater health risks.
In addition to issuing this guidance, the EPA has also indicated that it intends to propose and take comment on additional regulatory text that would codify this harmful guidance. I’ll be watching closely for when the proposal is issued. Submitting public comments to the EPA calling on the agency to reverse this destructive action will be key.
The Trump administration should focus on improving air quality—as Administrator Pruitt has claimed to want—not nixing effective public health protections.
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