More than 10 years after releasing a plan to reduce health risks from toxic emissions in urban areas, U.S. EPA has not followed through with new rules or updated risk assessments for smaller local sources, according to a new report by the agency's inspector general.
Upon the release of the Integrated Urban Air Toxics Strategy in 1999, the agency sounded an alarm about city-dwellers' exposure to emissions from smaller pollution sources such as cars, dry cleaners and gas stations. One in 28,000 Americans could get cancer due to these "area" sources, according to the latest assessment, with about 2 million living in areas where the lifetime risk was 1 in 10,000 or greater.
But while the agency was required to issue new urban emissions standards in 2000, they never came, according to the inspector general's report, which was released last week. EPA's most recent risk assessment is based on data from 2002, and the agency never released an updated report on hotspots with lingering public health problems, as it was told to do when Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990.
"About half of the States and several local agencies have laws preventing them from implementing environmental regulations stricter than EPA's regulations," the inspector general concluded. "Without the establishment of a minimum, federally required risk-based program, we do not believe that all state and local agencies will implement programs to adequately address the health risks from urban air toxics."
The program has long drawn criticism from the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, both of which have issued a string of reports over the past two decades concluding that air toxics have lingered near the bottom of the agency's priority list. According to the most recent GAO report, which was released in 2006, funding constraints had prompted the agency to bump toxics behind the agency's "criteria" air pollutants, which include sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).
Jeffrey Holmstead, the agency's air chief under President George W. Bush, said area sources often fell by the wayside while the agency pursued new regulations on toxic emissions from mobile sources and major sources. Funding for air toxics efforts fell by more than 70 percent between fiscal 2001 and 2009, according to the new report.
"There was a feeling that any remaining risk was very small, and with the time and effort it took to go through and do a defensible rulemaking for these area sources, you got very little risk reduction for your effort," Holmstead said. "Of course, the agency tries to meet its statutory mandates as much as it can, but at a certain point, you have so many of them, you have to pick and choose."
Though area sources produce less emissions than major sources, they are "especially badly controlled," Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew said. Small businesses often have greater human health impacts because there are so many of them, he said, compounded by the fact that they are often located in residential neighborhoods rather than industrial parks.
"EPA has been behind on a huge part of the implementation of the Clear Air Act," said Jane Williams, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's toxics task force. "All of this has taken over a decade."
According to the most recent risk assessment, about half of the increased cancer risk attributed to air toxics is linked to two chemicals -- benzene and carbon tetrachloride (Greenwire, June 26, 2009).
Funding has started coming back to the air toxics program, the agency said in its written response to the inspector general's report. The Obama administration requested an $18.7 million budget increase next year for EPA's air quality and toxics management program, which received $202.2 million for the current fiscal year.
"Limited resources over the past eight years have impaired our ability to fully implement these programs," the agency said. "For the first time in almost a decade, this year EPA has shifted funds from other programs to help meet regulatory deadlines."
EPA has pledged to issue an updated risk assessment report this summer, this time using emissions data from 2005. The agency plans to submit its report on hotspots to Congress by next summer.
Litigation by environmentalists seems to have prompted the agency to shift its attention to regulation of area sources, Holmstead said. With regulation of greenhouse gases, ground-level ozone and PM 2.5 at the top of the agency's agenda, he said, "there are a number of things that they clearly want to focus on more than these very small sources of air toxics."
EPA said it would meet its court-mandated deadline to issue three separate emissions standards for industrial boilers, institutional and commercial boilers, and sewer sludge incineration. If the agency finalizes those rules by Dec. 16, the inspector general's office said in its response to the agency's comments, it will have met its requirements "a little over 10 years after the original deadline."
Click here to read the inspector general's report.