If the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency gets its way, Kansas City’s air quality — which earns a grade of “C“ for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association — is going to get worse.
That’s right. While the news media are transfixed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s countless ethical lapses, his agency has quietly begun to dismantle decades of progress on reducing air pollution.
A proposed rule change would allow hundreds of industrial facilities across the country to dramatically increase their emissions of the most hazardous air pollutants — including arsenic, benzene, dioxin and mercury — that have been linked to respiratory illnesses, cancer, brain damage, birth defects and premature death.
Eleven of those facilities are in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
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The agency plans to weaken a policy dating back to 1995 that requires industrial facilities that annually emit 10 or more tons of a single air pollutant or 25 tons or more of a group of pollutants — so-called “major sources” of pollution — to install MACT, or “maximum available control technology,” to curb their emissions.
As the MACT policy is currently applied, once facilities are classified as major sources, they are permanently subject to it. This “once-in, always-in” rule has been extremely effective in protecting public health. The technologies it requires — scrubbers, filters and the like — have substantially reduced emissions of nearly 200 hazardous air pollutants, sometimes by as much as 95 percent.
Major sources whose emissions have dropped below the 10- or 25-ton limit could stop using MACT-mandated pollution control equipment and quit meeting MACT reporting requirements. While it is unlikely that facilities formerly designated as major sources would remove their pollution control devices, they could turn them off or run them at lower capacity to cut energy, operating and maintenance costs.
Bill Wehrum of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation claimed in a statement that repealing the rule would “will reduce the regulatory burden for industries and the states, while continuing to ensure stringent and effective controls on hazardous air pollutants.” In fact, the change would likely trigger a significant increase in air pollution by allowing facilities whose emissions are currently below the 10/25-ton threshold to increase them to those limits.
All told, 2,766 industrial facilities nationwide are subject to the MACT rule. Of these, 1,926 — more than two-thirds — emit less than 25 tons. The new guidance would enable them to collectively increase their toxic pollution by as much as 35,000 tons annually nationwide —a a 25 percent jump.
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently posted an interactive map on its website showing where these facilities are located and how much more pollution they could emit. Many of the worst-case scenarios are in 21 states that do not have their own air pollution regulations that could compensate for the absence of the once-in, always-in rule. They rely exclusively on federal air pollution standards.
Missouri and Kansas are among those 21 states. Without the MACT rule, 46 facilities in Missouri could increase their hazardous emissions by 791 tons per year— a 32 percent jump. In Kansas, 57 facilities could increase their emissions by 1,075 tons per year — a 54 percent jump. The 11 facilities in the Kansas City metro area, meanwhile, could double their annual toxic emissions, from 91 to 184 tons. Those include Bayer Crop Science, Phillips 66 Pipeline and Owens Corning.
Fortunately, the MACT rule change is not yet a done deal. The EPA plans to go through the rulemaking process to try to codify jettisoning this critical environmental safeguard. That can take 12 to 18 months and would require a public comment period, offering Kansas Citians a chance to weigh in. Beyond that, lawsuits by states and public interest groups also could slow down the process, if not scuttle it.
In the meantime, Kansas Citians should contact their representatives in Congress.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.