EPA Eliminates Vital Protection to Keep Air Clean of Toxics, Threatening Our Health

May 8, 2018 | 3:30 pm
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

For decades, the Clean Air Act has protected us from the dangerous health effects of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Many of these are toxic, since breathing or otherwise ingesting them can cause cancer, as well as respiratory and degenerative neurological diseases that can lead to death. Some, like chlorine and clorhydric acid, can inflame the lungs and airways. Workplace exposure to styrene, a solvent frequently used to manufacture plastics and synthetic rubber, is linked to degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis and others similar to Parkinson’s Disease. Thanks to strong federal rules that protect us from 187 toxic air pollutants, the EPA estimates that we have avoided emitting 1.5 million tons of these pollutants every year since 1990.

But the EPA, recently—and quietly—eliminated these protections. To the already long list of EPA actions that have undermined public protections and the extensive conflicts of interest of many of the agency’s political appointees, we can now add a new assault on our health and environment: the withdrawal of a long-standing policy known as “once in, always in” (OIAI). The change was made with no public comment and a muted announcement of a “reinterpretation” of the law. Eliminating OIAI will allow major sources of hazardous air pollutants like mining smelters and petrochemical manufacturing to discontinue the use of the maximum achievable control technologies (known as “MACT”) to control toxic air emissions.

In a previous post before UCS completed our analysis of potential impacts, I warned that the rule change would increase cancer-causing toxic air pollutant emissions. My colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman also explained how environmental justice (EJ) communities—typically low-income communities of color already overburdened with environmental hazards in their neighborhoods—would be the most affected by this rule change. Sure enough, in our study we did in fact find that many of the communities where there are already high levels of toxic contamination will become even more exposed.

Let’s take the communities of Galena Park and Manchester along the shipping channel in Houston, TX as an example. Together with our partners—residents of these communities and activists of the EJ organization TEJAS, we showed some time ago that their health and livelihoods are already under assault due to the clustering of multiple industrial facilities that emit large quantities of toxic air pollutants. Legislative District 29 (TX-29), where these communities are located, currently has 15 facilities that have kept emissions under 25 tons per year through the use of MACT; eleven of these facilities could emit an additional 205 tons per year of toxic air pollutants as a result of the EPA’s new policy, which represents an increase of nearly 70 percent!

Some major sources of hazardous air pollutants such as the Deer Park chemical manufacturing in Houston, TX (a subsidiary of OxyChem), could increase its emissions of hazardous air pollutants from 0.64 to nearly 25 tons per year if it stops using MACT to control emissions.

The EPA’s new guidance will affect states very differently because some states have their own stringent toxic emissions limits, while others follow federal guidelines. The 21 states that only follow federal guidelines will likely be most affected by the new guidance as shown in our web feature. But all states rely on the federal designation to some degree so this problem will occur across the country.

How can you find out how impacted your area may be? You can check out a map we created showing how many facilities in your congressional district could increase toxic emissions. For example, if you click on Montana’s At-Large congressional district, a pop-up window will reveal that 9 out of 17 MACT-subject facilities in the district could emit 212 tons per year of hazardous pollutants, and that the state does not have any additional protections in place to limit toxics. If you scroll the pop-up a bit further down, you will find the name and office phone number of that district’s congressional representative. We encourage you to contact your congressional representative and ask them how they will demand that the EPA and your state’s environmental agency will protect public health from this dangerous new change.

Take action

There are many ways you can speak up about the concerns you have about the potential for the facilities in your community to release hazardous air pollutants due to this reduction in public protections.

  • If you live in a state where toxic air pollution might increase, push your state legislators to enact stronger state-level laws to protect your community from toxic air pollutants. Below are some ways to engage – consult these tips on communicating with policymakers.
  • Inquire with your state air agency how your area might be affected by the changes to the “once in, always in” mandate. Find your state agency on the EPA site.
  • Utilize the media to bring attention to the issue. Write a letter to the editor, Op-Ed, or meet with local journalists or editorial boards about your concerns. See these tips on best practices.
  • Directly contact the company that operates the facility near you, and ask them to commit to maintaining their classification and use of MACT technology and requirements. Follow up if you don’t hear back in a week and utilize their response (or lack thereof) to hold them accountable for their actions, and/or to show the media, your policymakers, and the public what they are saying.
  • Tell EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to do his job of carrying out the EPA’s mission of protecting public health and the environment by rescinding the new guidance.
    • Tweet at EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA, and tag your members of congress.

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