July 14, 2006 – Rosenda Mataka says she is angry that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to pass more stringent emissions standards to stop large trash incinerators around the country from emitting dangerous toxins, such as dioxins, mercury and lead. Mataka lives just twelve miles from a waste combustor in the San Joaquin Valley in California.
This year, the EPA was required to review the emission standards of the 162 large municipal waste combustors (MWC) in the United States, and, as mandated by the federal Clean Air Act, ensure their pollution standards meet the "maximum degree of reduction."
Despite some improvements in emission standards, the EPAâ€™s final ruling on MWCs will not make the incinerator near Matakaâ€™s home any cleaner. Although the facility uses what is considered the best pollution-control technology, the EPA says it still lets some toxins through. And with the lenient new rules, the incinerator will not have to increase any emission standards, nor will it be held to its own current ones.
"How much does the dioxin affect us?" Mataka said, in an interview with The NewStandard. "We donâ€™t have the science to show. But we know that it does affect us. And how do we live with that?"
Dioxins are created during combustion processes, and exposure can lead to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and reproductive and development problems.
Despite some improvements in emission standards, the EPAâ€™s final ruling will not make the incinerators any cleaner.
In fact, Sierra Club, an environmental watchdog, says the EPAâ€™s final ruling on MWCs is so lax, the organization has filed a lawsuit against the agency last week. Both Sierra Club and the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is representing it, claim the EPAâ€™s standards illegally fail to comply with the Clean Air Act.
MWCs are facilities that dispose of household, commercial and institutional waste by burning it. Almost 90 percent of MWCs are waste-to-energy plants that generate electricity from burning garbage. Large MWCs are those that have the capacity to combust more than 250 tons of solid waste per day.
According to the EPAâ€™s own website, emissions from MWCs contain organic, metal and acid emissions, including dioxins, carbon monoxide, lead, mercury and sulphur dioxide.
"These pollutants can cause adverse effects to the public health and the environment," the website states.
The EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to review and revise MWC standards every five years.
"This was a real opportunity for the Agency to really ratchet down on the pollution," said Jim Pew, the attorney with Earthjustice who filed the suit. "Itâ€™s getting thrown away."
Pew said that although the EPA did improve some emission standards, the Agency will still allow higher pollution levels than MWCs already routinely emit. "Itâ€™s like setting a 10-mile-per gallon mileage for cars, even though cars can routinely achieve 20 miles per gallon," Pew told TNS.
â€œItâ€™s like setting a 10-mile-per gallon mileage for cars, even though cars can routinely achieve 20 miles per gallon.â€
And while many MWCs use advanced technology called fabric filters to control pollution, the EPA is not forcing all MWCs to switch to the more effective technology. This decision was made even after the EPA admitted that if the 21 MWCs currently using inferior technology switched to fabric filters, they would reduce the total pollution by more than 130 tons per year.
"Itâ€™s very disappointing that something that protects us from these harmful chemicals is not being done," said Marti Sinclair, chair of Sierra Clubâ€™s National Air Committee.
The EPA justified its ruling on control technology by concluding that the cost-reduction ratio for replacing equipment was excessive. The Agency determined that to replace older technology with fabric filters at the 21 MWCs would cost $100,000 per ton removed.
Although the EPA refused to comment for this article, the Agency admitted in its final ruling that the rule changes will "have no additional impacts to air, water or energy since the proposed emission limits can be achieved using the same air-pollution control technology that was used to comply with the current emission limits."
In fact, even some EPA officials have expressed concern that the new standards create a risk of "backsliding" â€“ facilities with high standards may adopt the EPAâ€™s lower standards.
An internal memo sent in November 2005 from Walt Stevenson of the EPAâ€™s Emission Standards Division to the federal Office of Management and Budget, which TNS has reviewed, warns of a "186 percent backsliding potential" for dioxin emissions as a result of the EPAâ€™s revised standards.
Another "piece of the puzzle," according to Pew, is pollution prevention. Despite the Clean Air Act requirement that the EPA should remove pollutants before combustion, the Agencyâ€™s final ruling on large MWCs includes no provisions for pre-treating waste â€“ extracting and recycling harmful components that should not be burned, such as batteries and plastics.
â€œEPA should have had this in place years and years ago. It will come out right in the end, but once people have been exposed to some of these dangerous pollutants, that damage is done and it canâ€™t be fixed.â€
"They take material that could be reduced or recycled and they just throw them in the incinerator," Sinclair said. "And those toxic components go up the stack and out into the environment. And the contaminants are making their way back to our bodies."
With complaints against the EPA mounting, Pew said he is confident the court will force the Agency to rewrite the large MWC rules. He pointed to other cases against the EPA that plaintiffs won.
In 2004, a court forced the EPA to rewrite emissions standards for small municipal waste combustors after Sierra Club filed a similar lawsuit.
"This is a program that is dysfunctional," Pew said. "The EPA just canâ€™t get these incinerator regulations right."
Although Marti of Sierra Club is equally certain the courts will rule in the environmentalistsâ€™ favor, she was also dismayed by the time it will take to implement stricter pollution standards.
"Weâ€™re looking at another generation of children growing up exposed to toxic pollutants," she said. "EPA should have had this in place years and years ago. It will come out right in the end, but once people have been exposed to some of these dangerous pollutants, that damage is done and it canâ€™t be fixed."