House Bills Repeal, Gut Safeguards Against Mercury & Toxic Air Pollution From Cement Plants, Incinerators, Boilers; Would Allow More Premature Deaths, Asthma Attacks

The week of October 2nd, two bills aimed at blocking critical health protections against mercury and other toxic air pollution from incinerators and boilers (H.R. 2250) [pdf] and cement plants (H.R. 2681) [pdf] are expected to be brought up for a House floor vote. These bills continue the deadly trend of the Cantor Pollution Plan – rolling back clean air safeguards and putting millions of American lives at risk. 

Last week saw adoption of the most extreme attack on the Clean Air Act ever to pass the House, legislation called the TRAIN Act (H.R. 2401). This Act repeals and blocks smog, soot, mercury and air toxics standards for power plants that would save over 130,000 lives and avoid over 1 million asthma attacks.

Like the TRAIN Act does with power plants, H.R. 2250 and H.R. 2681 nullify existing clean air standards for cement plants, incinerators and industrial boilers that collectively number in the thousands emitting mercury, arsenic, lead and cancer-causing toxins into our communities. Then these two bills allow the indefinite delay of compliance with these toxic air pollution standards, providing no guarantee of reductions even within a decade. Both bills forbid EPA from issuing final standards for these facilities for 15 months and also eliminate any deadlines by which industrial polluters must meet final standards once they are issued.

Even more irresponsibly, these bills severely weaken the Clean Air Act and overturn multiple federal court decisions to gut strong toxic air pollution standards that under current law must be applied to achieve deep cuts in dangerous mercury, lead, dioxins and acid gases from these facilities. See pages 10-13 and 16-17 of my Congressional testimony opposing the 2 bills here [pdf].

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has testified that weakening changes to the Clean Air Act included in the TRAIN Act – changes that are essentially identical to provisions in the cement, incinerator, and boiler bills -- “weaken and possibly destroy our ability to ever address those toxins, toxic pollutants” like “mercury and arsenic and lead and hydrochloric acid.” [Video testimony, starting at minute 50:50].

Cement plants and industrial boilers are two of the largest industrial emitters of mercury in the United States. Giving these industries a free pass, while over 100 other industries have already controlled their toxic pollution makes no sense and will seriously harm Americans’ health.

Incinerators and industrial boilers spew toxic air pollution such as cancer-causing dioxins, arsenic, and mercury and lead, which harm children’s brains. EPA is currently reconsidering toxic air pollution standards for these facilities and expects to finalize them by April of 2012. H.R. 2250 blocks critical health protections against mercury and toxic air pollution that are already a decade overdue. The bill blocks final standards by a minimum of 3.5 more years.

Cement plants also spew mercury and other deadly toxic air pollution. EPA finalized toxic air pollution standards for cement plants one year ago, in September 2010. These standards already are thirteen years overdue, and H.R. 2681 would further delay standards by a minimum of 4.5 years.

Both bills, however, then gratuitously repeal longstanding Clean Air Act compliance deadlines, thereby allowing actual compliance with any future standards to be delayed indefinitely. As summarized below, these delays will result in vastly more asthma attacks, more illness, and more avoidable deaths.

According to EPA’s analysis [pdf], as summarized in a recent White House blog, these two bills collectively would mean, at a minimum:

  • 32,500 more premature deaths;
  • 19,500 additional heart attacks; and
  • 208,000 asthma attacks that otherwise would have been avoided.

I’ve testified in opposition to these irresponsible bills before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Since my testimony, a minor amendment was made to the bills in an attempt to obfuscate the delays and radical re-writes to the Clean Air Act built into the bills. 

Make no mistake, just like the original versions of these bills, H.R. 2250 (incinerators and boilers) and H.R. 2681(cement plants) as amended, still weaken the Clean Air Act severely to prevent the possibility of protective toxic air pollution standards while authorizing the indefinite postponement of compliance with any standards.

How do the bills accomplish this?

1) The final sections of both bills eliminate the most protective legal standard for reducing toxic air pollution that has been in the Clean Air Act for nearly twenty-one years. The two bills then replace this strong standard with the absolute least protective measures even mentioned in the law, “work practice standards” such as equipment tune-ups that need not even reduce emissions.

This single provision in both bills would have the effect of exempting incinerators, industrial boilers and cement plants from maximum reductions in toxic air pollution emissions, in contrast to every other major industrial source of toxic air pollution in the nation. Testimony [pdf], at 10-13, 16-17.

2) The “compliance dates” section in both bills, even as amended, eliminates statutory deadlines by which polluters must comply with toxic air pollution standards, once re-issued. Instead, the bills direct EPA to establish a date for compliance that is “not earlier than 5 years” from the date the bill is signed into law. This represents a 2-year delay beyond the latest compliance date required for every other industry in the country, but also imposes the unprecedented total elimination of any firm statutory compliance deadline.

Cement plants, incinerators and industrial boilers are some of our nation’s biggest polluters of mercury, cancer-causing dioxins, lead, and acid gases. H.R. 2250 and H.R. 2681 would give these industries a free pass from any meaningful cleanup obligations while allowing compliance with any future weak standards to be delayed indefinitely.

In the process, these bills will sacrifice tens of thousands of lives, pollute the air we breathe, and expose our children, families, and communities to toxic air pollutants that cause illness and developmental disorders.

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