By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
Air pollution causes serious harm to our society – from coughing, to smog in the air, to a visit to the emergency room. And the only way to mitigate the threat of air pollution is to use the best available science and technology to measure it accurately. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to disagree. The agency has quietly finalized a rule that ignores its mission to protect human health and the environment by instead focusing on saving industry money.
The change is modifying a 21-year old rule, called the Nitrogen Oxides State Implementation Plan Call, which was designed to curb the emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from industrial facilities in 20 states, mostly on the US East Coast and the District of Columbia. Power plants, as well as large steel, aluminum, and paper manufacturers in these states will now have the option to pick “alternate forms of monitoring” for NOx – none of which are specified – instead of the current standard of “continuous emission monitoring systems” or CEMS. The EPA has justified modifying this rule as a potential cost-saving measure to industry.
CEMS are considered the “gold standard” for source monitoring and are just like what they sound like, technology attached to industrial exhaust stacks that continuously measure air pollution levels. CEMS have proven to be incredibly effective at monitoring NOx pollution for the EPA’s Acid Rain Program (producing highly accurate data 95% of the time). As a result of this scientific evidence, CEMS was codified into regulation as a required monitoring tool for all large electrical and steam-producing industrial sources in 20 states and DC.
The new rule is designed to collect less high-quality data
In the rule’s text, the EPA admits that ditching the requirement for CEMS might allow these facilities “to perform less extensive data reporting or less comprehensive quality-assurance testing,” and that “monitoring approaches may be expected to provide less detailed monitoring data and require less rigorous quality assurance” (emphasis added). The rule could discontinue continuous monitoring of a dangerous pollutant in hundreds of the nation’s largest industrial facilities, leading to data gaps that could significantly challenge the ability to curb NOx emissions.
This is extremely problematic. Measuring air pollution gives us a warning when things go bad, like a canary in a coal mine. If we don’t measure air pollution using the best science available, how can we have enough high-quality information to protect the health and safety of communities living nearby these facilities, communities that are already at risk of breathing in high levels of toxic air?
Nitrogen oxide emissions need to be curbed, and the previous system was working really well
NOx is a family of poisonous gases that can cause you to cough and wheeze, sometimes badly enough to require a visit to the emergency room (especially if you have asthma). This pollutant has a bad habit of combining with other substances to form smog and acid rain. New research has even suggested that NOx is a likely cause of asthma and a risk factor for the development of lung cancer, low birth weight in newborns, and an early death. And the risks are heightened for asthmatics, children, and the elderly.
Fossil-fuel electric utilities are one of the primary sources of NOx pollution and, thanks in part to state and federal regulation, NOx pollution levels from these sources have dropped by 82% over a 20-year period, according to EPA data (1997 to 2017).
Where did this rule come from?
Impetus for the 2019 rule likely originated from the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies, a shadow group of state air regulators that don’t recognize the federal government’s authority – upheld by the Supreme Court – to regulate greenhouse gases. In a 2017 filing, the group described the continuous monitoring requirement as “overly burdensome” and costly to businesses outside the power sector.
Clint Woods, who was the association’s executive director at the time, is now deputy chief of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Woods has been previously implicated in suppressing a studydetailing the cancer risks from formaldehyde, a clear attack on science and public health. Woods has also influenced the selection of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which is now staffed with individuals who lack the expertise to provide adequate scientific advice.
Part of a pattern of sidelining science in Trump’s EPA
This is not the first time that the EPA, under the Trump administration, has sidelined air pollution science. Industrial facilities now have the opportunity to use less stringent control mechanisms for hazardous air pollutants, like mercury and benzene. A scientific advisory board of experts that once provided valuable information on particulate matter air pollution has now been dissolved. And establishing an air pollution standard may soon require economic considerations instead of being solely focused on improving public health – again, an abdication of EPA’s mission to protect human health.
One of the most important benefits that science can bring to the federal arena is to ground policy in an evidence-based approach. Air pollution policy fundamentally depends on obtaining high-quality, accurate data in order to make any significant health improvements in our communities. By disrupting the collection of high-quality data on a dangerous pollutant, the EPA disregards best scientific practices, decreases its own ability to properly monitor NOx pollution from industrial sources, and undermines its mission to protect public health. If we don’t have an accurate measure of how much NOx pollution is escaping from these facilities, how on earth are we supposed to stop it from causing real harm to our people and our environment?