EPA Finalized Rule that Eliminated Safeguards for Industrial Pollution

Published May 4, 2021

What happened: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a rule that could increase hazardous air pollutant emissions from industrial facilities. The rule allowed industries that are major sources of pollution to reclassify under another less stringent category, allowing industries to bypass rigorous, science-based enforcement mechanisms that can strongly reduce hazardous air pollutant emissions.

Why it matters: The EPA’s rule lacked scientific justification and allowed major industries to reclassify and emit large quantities of hazardous air pollutants, endangering the health and safety of millions of people. The EPA enacted this policy without first conducting analyses to determine the effect on public health or the environment. When the EPA carries out science-related policy decisions that are not supported by any scientific evidence, they are undermining the mission of the EPA to regulate hazards like air pollutants using evidence-based approaches.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule allowed major sources of hazardous air pollutants, such as mining smelters and petrochemical manufacturing industries, to downgrade their status and abide by less stringent emission standards. Hazardous air pollutants, which include mercury, arsenic, and benzene, are dangerous substances known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other serious health conditions. During the EPA’s interagency review of the rule, EPA officials raised concerns about the need for regulatory impact analyses, especially to study disproportionate health impacts on communities of color.

The EPA’s rule codified a 2018 guidance document, which in turn eliminated a policy that the EPA has followed since 1995, known as the “once in, always in” policy (see our earlier attack on science article). The policy stated that if a major polluter at any point exceeded the thresholds set by the Clean Air Act for hazardous air pollutants, then that polluter was required to apply Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT). MACT is considered to be the gold standard and it reduces hazardous air pollutants 70 percent of the time below federal threshold limits.

Scientific research has shown that this policy could result in up to 35,030 tons per year of additional hazardous air pollutants emissions across the US. Because industries often cluster near underserved communities, the health harms from this additional pollution will fall disproportionately on people of color and low-income individuals. By enacting this rule, the EPA violated its mission to protect human health and the environment and placed the lives of thousands of people, especially in underserved communities, at risk of serious harm.