EPA trumpets ‘considerable gains’ in curbing toxic emissions

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 22, 2014

U.S. emissions of air pollutants linked to cancer, asthma and other serious health problems have plunged over the past few decades, according to a report released today by U.S. EPA.

Overall, toxic air pollution from smokestacks and other stationary sources has declined 1.5 million tons each year between 1990 and 2012, while emissions from motor vehicles and other moving pollution sources have been cut in half each year during that time, EPA said.

Between 1994 and 2009, benzene emissions declined by 66 percent across the United States. Mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources have fallen by nearly 60 percent since the passage of the Clean Air Act, the agency said. The average amount of lead in the outdoor air, a Clean Air Act criteria pollutant, also fell 89 percent between 1980 and 2010.

“It shows that we’ve made considerable gains in improving our air quality across the country,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters in a conference call today. “And meanwhile, as I think we know, our economy has been continuing to grow.”

The report is the second of two reports that EPA was required to submit to Congress on public health risks from air toxics in urban areas. The agency issued the first in 2000.

The agency attributed the decreases in air toxics to regulations it has issued over the past two decades.

Between 1990 and 2012, EPA issued 97 air-toxics standards covering 174 types of major pollution sources, such as chemical plants and gasoline refineries. The agency also issued rules covering 68 smaller sources, such as dry cleaners.

Reductions also came from rules targeting mobile sources of air pollution, such as vehicles, and national voluntary campaigns, EPA said.

“What you see here is success because we really have addressed a variety of sources, including small ones like dry cleaners,” McCarthy said. “A lot of these can make a big difference to local communities.”

Despite the overall reduction in air toxics in the country, the EPA report says some densely urban areas of the country still experience high risks from toxic air pollutants.

EPA also said it faces challenges in providing a complete picture of the concentration of air toxics and the health effects of cumulative air pollutants.

McCarthy said the agency hoped to use the 139-page report released today as a screening tool for deciding which communities to target for more work. EPA intends to work with states and communities on reducing specific pollutants, she said.

As part of the effort, EPA tomorrow will launch two pilot projects in Philadelphia and Birmingham, Ala., through the Toxics Release Inventory, a program through which polluters are required to report emissions of pollutants to EPA. The agency plans to use the TRI data to support local decisionmaking in those areas, EPA said.