April 24, 2018

EPA Enforcement Rollback Could Increase Toxic Air Pollution, Science Group Says

Nationwide Map Shows Where New Policy Would Likely Do the Most Harm

Washington (April 24, 2018)—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just changed the way it enforces clean air rules, and the consequences could be dire for millions of Americans, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

EPA Assistant Administrator William Wehrum recently issued a guidance ending the “once in, always in” policy requiring major polluters to use maximum achievable control technologies (MACT) to reduce the toxic pollutants they emit into nearby communities. That policy has reined in pollution from thousands of facilities across the country, but Wehrum’s policy change creates a loophole that would enable facilities to comply with weaker standards and reduce federal oversight.

Today, UCS posted an interactive map showing where this ill-considered policy would increase health risks the most.

“Changing this longstanding science-based policy will only increase toxic air pollution,” said UCS scientist Juan Declet-Barreto, the lead author of the analysis that produced the data for the maps.   “Facilities now can ask to be reclassified, which would allow them to release more pollution and avoid strict federal oversight. This policy change will treat metal smelters, chemical plants and other major polluters as if they’re neighborhood dry cleaners. Assistant Administrator Wehrum is changing a science-based policy that works, and it’s going to make Americans sick.”

The pollutants covered under this new rule pose serious risks to human health. Among them are benzene, styrene and formaldehyde, which are linked to cancer, respiratory illness, and other severe health problems.

The enormity of this policy change is still unclear because the EPA has yet to explain the timeline or process for facilities to apply for reclassification and because air quality standards for hazardous air pollutants vary from state to state. The new policy would have the most impact in the 21 states that rely solely on federal enforcement. The interactive map shows all of the facilities that could be affected across the country as well as the potential impacts at the congressional district level.

“There’s ambiguity about how this will work in practice,” said Declet-Barreto. “But we can be certain that it will disproportionately affect certain communities, some of which are already burdened with higher levels of dangerous pollutants. Low-income communities and communities of color will likely suffer the most.”

There are thousands of facilities currently using maximum achievable control technologies that could apply for reclassification under this change. If the EPA reclassified every eligible facility, the new policy could result in an additional 35,000 tons of toxic pollution per year—a 25 percent increase over today’s levels.

“This new rule is a betrayal of the EPA’s mission,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “This is just the latest attack on public protections, but it’s a dangerous one. The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution. Instead of continuing to require polluters to control their own emissions, they are allowing them to impose those costs onto the public.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.