Americans Deserve to Have Polluting Boilers and Incinerators Cleaned Up

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency re-proposed [pdf] standards to reduce mercury, toxic metals, acid gases and other hazardous air pollution from industrial boilers and incinerators. These standards already are over a decade overdue, and EPA’s newly-revised standards achieve significant health benefits while lowering industry costs and maintaining flexibility.

Nearly 40 million Americans [pdf, page 10] live within three miles of at least one of these types of industrial facilities that emits uncontrolled or poorly controlled levels of toxic air pollution (like mercury, lead, and formaldehyde).  Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that damages the developing brains of children and the unborn. Other toxic air pollutants emitted by these facilities cause cancer, birth defects, and contribute to asthma attacks, bronchitis and premature deaths. For years, these known emitters of neurotoxins and carcinogens have been poisoning nearby residential neighborhoods, schools and communities.

With today’s announcement, EPA’s proposed new standards will avoid every year [pdf]:

  • Up to 8,100 premature deaths (this is 1,600 more lives saved than the previous standards);
  • 5,100 heart attacks;
  • Nearly 5,400 hospital and emergency room visits;
  • Almost 400,000 days of missed work; and
  • Over 50,000 cases of asthma attacks.

The proposed standards achieve these impressive and necessary health benefits overwhelmingly by targeting the dirtiest sliver of boilers in America, the 0.4 percent [pdf] of large industrial boilers that are located at refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities.

EPA projects that today’s reproposed standards for these large industrial boilers will reduce the following amounts of hazardous air pollutants every year [pdf]:

  • Up to 3,600 pounds of mercury;
  • 2,200 tons per year (tpy) of non-mercury metals;
  • 37,000 tpy of HCL;
  • 41,200 tpy of particulate matter (PM);
  • 560,000 tpy of SO2; and
  • 4,700 tpy of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The emission reductions are even greater when factoring in pollution cuts from smaller boilers and incinerators.

The proposed standards also are projected to lead to a net creation of new jobs while providing a return of $12 - $30 in benefits [pdf] to the Americans people for every $1 spent by industry to control this toxic pollution.

Today’s proposed standards are the product of EPA’s reconsideration of previous toxic air pollution standards for industrial boilers and incinerators that the agency first finalized [pdf] in March, 2011. EPA listened to industry concerns about the rule and has responded in today’s proposal by providing more flexibility and lower implementation costs. For example, of the 1.5 million industrial boilers in the nation, fewer than 1% are subject to emissions limits as a result of today’s proposal. An additional 13% of units can meet their obligations under the standards simply by undertaking annual tune-ups of their equipment. Additional flexibilities are accorded boilers that burn biomass.

Today’s announcement is not without concern, however. It is troubling that EPA actually is proposing to repeal emission limits for cancer-causing dioxins, and replace them with dubious “work practice standards” – the weakest and most ineffectual tool in the Clean Air Act. NRDC will continue to review the proposal and provide comments to the agency during the public comment period.

The proposal’s added flexibility, lower costs, and increased benefits should lead Congress to support these standards and the expeditious delivery of significant health improvements for the American people. Congress should abandon any legislation that would weaken the Clean Air Act or block or undermine these long-overdue lifesaving standards.

The president exercised strong leadership by threatening to veto [pdf] irresponsible House Republican legislation to block and eviscerate boiler-incinerator health safeguards. Now EPA has shown responsibility in listening to industry and political critics while continuing to enforce the Clean Air Act to protect Americans.

Overall, today’s announcement is a positive step towards cleaner communities and healthier families. Americans deserve the health benefits that will come from finally cleaning up these dirty boilers and incinerators.