Tasked by Congress with obtaining the maximum achievable reductions in toxic emissions from large municipal waste incinerators, the Environmental Protection Agency set standards that will require no reductions at all. Agency documents indicate concern that the rule will allow incinerators’ pollution levels to backslide and get worse. Earthjustice, representing Sierra Club, is challenging this rule today in federal court.
The challenged rule covers “large municipal waste combustors,” those capable of burning at least 250 tons of garbage each day. EPA estimates that approximately 167 waste combustors, located all over the country, emit over 13 tons of mercury pollution, 24 tons of lead, and vast quantities of particulate matter and acid gases each year.
“We were taught a long time ago that burning our garbage in our backyard was not good for the air we breathe and our environment,” said Marti Sinclair, chair of Sierra Club’s Air Committee. “But for some reason, that lesson didn’t make its way to the offices at EPA. This is an opportunity for EPA to achieve major pollution reductions. Instead, EPA has decided to allow pollution backsliding to occur, putting our families at risk for birth defects, cancers, heart and lung disease and other health problems related to toxic air pollution.”
EPA acknowledges that the air pollutants emitted by incinerators include substances that can cause cancer and other catastrophic health effects, as well as long term environmental damage. But in a May 2006 rule, rather than set emission standards that will reduce some of these dangerous chemical emissions, EPA instead approved a rule that sets emission standards that are worse than what many of these waste combustors already achieve. Significant reductions would be achieved if EPA implemented the Clean Air Act. Just by making fuller use of off-the-shelf control technologies, EPA admits, 21 of the dirtiest combustors could reduce their pollution by more than 130 tons each year.
Another common sense approach at reducing toxic pollution is to remove those items that produce this pollution before they even are burned. Congress was explicit in the Clean Air Act that it intended EPA to include pre-combustion pollution prevention measures. Separating hazardous materials such as batteries, mercury switches and PVC plastics could achieve significant pollution reductions and clean up the emissions from these combustors. However, the agency included no requirements for sorting or prevention. Properly recycling certain kinds of wastes and sorting out other dangerous materials rather than burning them is an immediate and impacting pollution reduction.
“For everyone who spends their time sorting out their aluminum cans, separately bagging their newspapers and cardboard, and properly disposing of their computer monitors and old cell phones, we know how this small inconvenience can have a big impact,” stated James Pew an attorney at Earthjustice. “But EPA just doesn’t seem to understand that these all add up to reduce overall pollution emissions. Instead, they continue to allow these dangerous items to be burned, and do nothing to require these combustors to do their part to reduce, reuse and recycle.”