Take Action Now to Protect Us from Pollution

President Obama can implement five major rules before Inauguration Day to protect our nation’s health and environment from toxic pollution and climate change.

The Reid-Gardner power station is seen just beyond homes on the Moapa Indian Reservation, in Moapa, Nevada. (AP/Julie Jacobson)
The Reid-Gardner power station is seen just beyond homes on the Moapa Indian Reservation, in Moapa, Nevada. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

In the wake of Tuesday’s historic presidential victory, a newly reelected President Barack Obama can continue his efforts to protect our nation’s public health from the ravages of pollution. Voters rejected Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s high-profile campaign proposals to rely on antiquated, dirty, coal-fired power plants and overturn other new public health safeguards. The president’s new mandate provides his administration with the backing to complete unfinished Environmental Protection Agency safeguards before his inauguration on January 20, 2013, to a second term of office.

A number of vital proposed health safeguards from power plant, vehicle, and industrial pollution still linger in administrative limbo. It is unclear why these rules were held up, but now that the president will remain in the White House, this unfinished business must be completed. These actions would clear the regulatory slate, enabling the administration to address two big problems in its second term:

  • Reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants and other industrial sources
  • Strengthening the ozone smog health standard to provide more protection for children, seniors, and other vulnerable people

Make no mistake: The tragic fatalities and billions of dollars of damages from Hurricane Sandy are yet another warning about the imperative to further reduce climate change pollution. Building on the standards to reduce carbon pollution from motor vehicles adopted during his first term can be a major legacy of President Obama’s second term.

Here’s a list of five major and essential Environmental Protection Agency rules to protect public health that the administration should finalize immediately as a prelude to President Obama’s climate-change and pollution-reduction agenda in his second term.

Reduce carbon pollution from new power plants

In March 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft rule limiting carbon pollution from new power plants. This standard was promulgated in response to the 2007 Supreme Court ruling requiring the agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act if it found that carbon dioxide emissions endangered public health and the environment. The agency published such a finding in 2009, noting that carbon-pollution-associated climate change will increase the frequency of unusually higher temperatures and heat waves.

Increased temperatures can increase the risk for formation of ground level ozone or smog. Breathing ozone may lead to shortness of breath and chest pain; increased risk of asthma attacks; increased susceptibility to respiratory infections; need for medical treatment and for hospitalization for people with lung diseases, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and premature death. Children and senior citizens are most vulnerable to harm from smog.

The Environmental Protection Agency held several listening sessions while drafting the proposal, held two public hearings on the proposed rule, and extended the comment period to 73 days. Almost 3 million comments were sent to the agency in favor of reducing carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants—a record for an Environmental Protection Agency rule proposal. The agency is now in the midst of finalizing its rule.

The Obama administration must act quickly to create a new generation of cleaner power plants so that it can begin to develop a carbon pollution reduction regime for existing power plants.

Reduce hazardous pollution from industrial boilers

The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to issue rules limiting the hazardous air pollutant emissions (which include mercury, carcinogens, and particulates) from large industrial, commercial, or institutional boilers. The rule, known within the agency and around Capitol Hill as the MACT Boiler Rule, was first published in 2003, but it has been delayed for almost a decade.

The D.C. Circuit Court vacated (voided) the 2004 rule in 2007 because it excluded many types of industrial boilers from pollution controls. The Environmental Protection Agency then issued a revised final rule by a court-imposed deadline of March 2011, but delayed that rule for another, “reconsidered” version that was released in December 2011.

That reconsidered rule would apply to less than 1 percent of boilers while reducing enough pollution to avoid up to 8,100 premature deaths, 5,100 heart attacks, and 52,000 cases of aggravated asthma every year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans would receive $12 to $30 in health benefits for every dollar spent to reduce these pollutants. After administrative and legal delays, the Environmental Protection Agency should issue the final rule by the end of 2012.

Finalizing this rule by January could end years of delayed protection from toxic mercury and improve public health.

Reduce smog pollution from cars, light trucks, and gasoline

The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Tier 2” Vehicle and Gasoline Sulfur Program was finalized in February 2000. The program reduced about 90 percent of sulfur from gasoline and created tailpipe emissions standards for model year vehicles from 2004 to 2009. More than a decade later, a “Tier 3” standard is being developed that relies on improved technology to reduce the impact of motor vehicles on air quality and public health by establishing new standards for vehicles and gasoline.

These standards wouldn’t just affect motor vehicles in the future; gasoline standards would improve public health immediately. Sulfur additives in gasoline can make cars less efficient, which increases vehicle emissions. Those emissions include volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide that form smog and harm humans. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies estimates that anticipated reductions of sulfur in gasoline would be the equivalent of removing 33 million light cars and trucks off the road.

Another study found that a Tier 3 rule could reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 25 percent in the Northeast United States alone. Nitrogen oxide contributes to ozone smog and acid rain, and impairs public health. It’s estimated that the avoided harms to public health in the Northeastern part of the United States in 2018 would have an economic value of up to $1.2 billion (in 2006 dollars). It could cost less than one penny per gallon of gasoline and approximately $150 per new vehicle while simultaneously reducing smog ingredients. This reduction can avoid more than 400 premature deaths and 52,000 lost workdays each year.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose lowering the sulfur standard from 30 parts per million to 10 parts per million, similar to standards in many European countries, in Japan, and in California. The Tier 3 rule has not yet been proposed, but many affected industries, including a consortium of global automakers, have pressed the agency to move forward with its rulemaking.

Modernize protection from soot

In June 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to strengthen the nation’s air quality health standards for fine particulate matter. Commonly referred to as soot, this pollutant is a mix of small particles like nitrates, sulfates, or dust that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, which comes from vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources. When inhaled, these particles can lodge in the lungs, causing serious health effects.

This new rule would improve public health and visibility by swiftly limiting short-term soot exposure. Long-term exposure to soot can cause premature death and is linked to heart attacks and strokes. Some studies suggest that long-term soot exposure may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects in children, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.

The soot standard has a long history. The Environmental Protection Agency began its first review process of air quality standards for fine particle soot in 1997. The D.C. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the rule for five years. Pursuant to a 2003 modified consent decree, the agency published its proposed revisions to the PM 2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standard on January 17, 2006. The agency issued its final rule on October 17, 2006.

In 2009 the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had to reconsider its fine-particle soot standard because it improperly issued weak, less-protective standards. The agency proposed revisions on June 29, 2012, and agreed to finalize the air quality standards by December 14, 2012, as part of a settlement to a lawsuit.

The Obama administration should publish its final rule on December 14 and put an end to the delay of this new respiratory health safeguard.

Improve clean air quality standards for cement manufacturing

In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed rule to further limit soot, mercury, and other hazardous pollutants from existing and new cement kilns. Cement manufacturing is one of the largest industrial sources of mercury pollution in our nation. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the rule would eliminate 92 percent of the mercury and fine-particulate soot emissions from cement kilns.

The rule was challenged in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the agency’s cement standards were fine but that storage standards for clinker needed to be reconsidered. When clinker (the mix of raw materials used to make cement) is fired in a kiln, it causes the emission of particulates and hazardous chemicals, including mercury. It can continue to emit some hazardous chemicals when stored in piles.

In June 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changes to the Portland cement rule; it held a public hearing in August. On September 9 the agency submitted its final rule, which will take effect today. The Obama administration must be prepared to defend this standard against legal challenges so it will protect people from breathing in mercury from cement manufacturing.

Moving now against climate change

Now that President Obama has been reelected, let’s hope he focuses his energy on protecting us from mercury, soot, and toxic air pollutants. He can make a down payment on that effort in his second term of office by taking action on these five essential Environmental Protection Agency rules in 2012.

Danielle Baussan is Associate Director of Government Affairs at the Center for American Progress. Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center.

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 (Danielle Baussan)

Danielle Baussan

Director of Climate Preparedness

Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow