Catalyst Summer 2018

Calculating the Trump Administration’s Threat to the Air We Breathe

UCS analysis shows how a proposed rollback could bring dramatically dirtier air to a neighborhood near you.
Photo: Klaus Eppele/Adobe Stock
By Elliott Negin

When asked about his take on environmental protection shortly after the 2016 election, President-elect Trump was unequivocal.

“Clean air,” he said, “is vitally important.”

Since taking office, however, the Trump administration has quietly begun the process of rolling back decades of progress in reducing air pollution. Perhaps the most alarming move to date is a proposed rule change that would allow hundreds of industrial facilities across the country to dramatically increase their emissions of the most hazardous air pollutants. Some of these pollutants—arsenic, benzene, dioxin, mercury—have been linked to cancer, brain damage, birth defects, respiratory illness, or premature death.

To anyone who values clean air, that sounds like a terrible idea. But it wasn’t clear exactly how much additional pollution this seemingly arcane, under-the-radar proposal could cause, and proponents disingenuously insist that it would actually encourage emissions reductions. To pin down the real-world ramifications of revoking the rule, Juan Declet-Barreto, climate scientist and Kendall Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, led a team to crunch the numbers.

“We knew that changing this longstanding science-based policy would increase toxic air pollution,” Declet-Barreto says. “We also knew it would make more people sick. But we wanted to find out just how much more air pollution would result and where. And we wanted people across the country to be able to use our research to figure out how their own communities could be affected.”

Reclassifying Major Polluters

Nucor Steel (whose Alabama plant is shown here) is one of thousands of facilities that would be able to emit more toxic pollution if the MACT reporting requirements are weakened.
Photo: John L. Wathen/Hurricane Creekkeeper

As detailed in a memo issued earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to change a policy dating back to 1995 that designates industrial facilities as “major sources” of air pollution if they annually emit 10 or more tons of a single toxic pollutant or 25 tons or more of a group of pollutants, and requires them to install “maximum available control technology” (MACT) to curb their emissions.

As the policy is currently applied, once a facility is designated as a major source, it is permanently subject to the MACT rule, known as the “once-in, always-in” policy. The technologies required by the policy—scrubbers, filters, and the like—have dramatically reduced emissions of 187 hazardous air pollutants listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, sometimes by as much as 95 percent.

Disregarding that success, the new proposal would allow major-source facilities that have reduced their emissions below the 10- or 25-ton limits to request reclassification. That would enable them to discontinue using MACT-mandated pollution control equipment and free them from MACT reporting requirements as long as their emissions remain below the 10-/25-ton threshold.

See the Impact Where You Live

Photo: holwichaikawee/

So just how much more pollution would result from this change? Declet-Barreto and his fellow UCS scientists analyzed several government databases to assemble a complete list of the facilities currently subject to the MACT rule, identify which facilities would be affected by the change, and determine how many tons of pollutants they might now be allowed to emit.

The result of the team’s efforts is an interactive map on the UCS website, showing where the proposed policy change would have the most impact.

The Numbers Are Staggering

All told, 2,766 industrial facilities nationwide are subject to the MACT rule. Of these, more than two-thirds—1,926 major-source facilities—emit less than 25 tons. The new guidance would permit them to collectively increase their toxic pollution by as much as 35,000 tons annually if they were all reclassified. That represents a potential 25 percent jump in dangerous air pollutants over current levels.

While it is unlikely that facilities formerly classified as major sources would remove their pollution control devices, it is likely that they would turn the devices off or run them at lower capacity to cut energy, operating, and maintenance costs. And while these facilities would have to comply with other air pollution laws, they would no longer be regulated or inspected as stringently as major-source polluters.

Take action

Visit the UCS website to see how this proposed rollback will affect the air near you. The interactive maps calculate the potential increases at individual facility locations as well as within US congressional districts. You can use the information to contact your elected official and urge them to take action to oppose this dangerous rule change.

“There’s ambiguity about how this new approach will work in practice,” says Declet-Barreto. “But we can be certain that giving polluters a pass will disproportionately affect certain neighborhoods in industrial towns, many of which are already dealing with high levels of toxic pollution. Low-income communities and people of color will likely suffer the most.”

Who Will Be Hardest Hit?

At least 25 states have their own air pollution standards that may at least partially compensate for the absence of the federal rule, but 21 other states rely exclusively on federal regulations, so facilities in those states that emit less than the 10-/25-ton threshold would no longer be subject to the MACT rule if reclassified.

As the UCS map reveals, of those 21 states, the three with the largest number of affected facilities are (in order of total facilities) North Carolina, Alabama, and Kentucky. Without the MACT once-in, always-in rule, 86 industrial plants in North Carolina could increase their hazardous emissions by 1,464 tons per year, boosting annual emissions in that state to 7,456 tons (a 24 percent jump). Alabama’s 81 facilities could increase their toxic output by 1,259 tons annually, increasing that state’s total emissions by 13 percent. And 69 plants in Kentucky could spew an extra 1,314 tons of pollutants into the air per year, yielding a 26 percent increase in that state’s total emissions.

New England states, however, face the biggest percentage increases in toxic air pollution.

Massachusetts, which has 25 major-source facilities that would be affected by the rule change, could potentially see a 244 percent annual rise in toxic air pollution, from 220 tons to 757 tons. Seven of those facilities are in the Boston metro area and now emit nearly 14 tons a year. If they all increased their annual emissions to 25 tons, which would be allowable if the once-in, always-in requirement were revoked, they would emit an extra 161 tons of pollution—a more than tenfold increase.

Thirteen plants in Connecticut, meanwhile, could increase their annual emissions by 281 tons, driving up total toxic air pollution in the state 385 percent, from 73 to 354 tons. And, in the most extreme case, six plants in Rhode Island could emit an additional 134 tons, increasing total emissions in the state from 16 to 150 tons, an 838 percent jump.

What You Can Do

Fortunately, the change to the MACT rule is not yet a done deal. The EPA memo is merely a guidance document that explains how the agency intends to interpret existing rules. It also indicates that the agency will go through the standard rulemaking process to codify revisions to the once-in, always-in policy.

The rulemaking process can take 12 to 18 months and involves a public comment period, offering UCS members and supporters a chance to weigh in directly. Beyond that, lawsuits by states and public interest groups could also do much to slow the process, if not scuttle it altogether.

“Our research clearly shows that this move would sabotage the EPA’s mission of protecting public health and the environment, threatening many communities with dramatic increases in toxic air pollution,” says Declet-Barreto. “Our map allows people across the country to see how these changes could affect their families and their communities. Hopefully it will encourage them to speak up and fight for cleaner air.”