New EPA Rule Reduces Pollution In Communities Located Near Power Plants

May 24, 2015 by


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The Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule on power plants and other industrial facilities Friday that advocates say will drastically improve the quality of life of people living near industrial zones.

The EPA’s new “Startup, Shutdown, and Malfunction” rule targets just what it sounds like: the emissions produced when power plants start up, shut down, or malfunction. Until now, a loophole in EPA regulations meant that power plants could unleash unlimited pollution during these times, meaning that the communities that live near power plants — which, according to the Sierra Club, are often lower-income and communities of color — were subject to emissions that could be 10 times the level typically allowed to be released by power plants.

Now, under the new rule, states will have to abide by the Clean Air Act in crafting limits for emissions from facilities starting up, shutting down and malfunctioning. States will have a maximum of 18 months to revise their regulations to abide by the new rule.

“Exemptions from emission limits during periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction exist in a number of state rules,” the EPA’s new rule reads. “Recent court decisions have held that under the [Clean Air Act], such exemptions are not allowed in[state plans].”

The rule is good news for communities located near industrial facilities, said Andrea Issod, staff attorney for the Sierra Club, which filed a petition against the EPA to close the loophole in 2011.

“Pollution during these startup events can far exceed the amount of pollution that comes from these facilities during their operation,” Issod told ThinkProgress.

That’s because facilities often won’t use pollution controls during these events, since the loophole in federal regulations made it legal for them to emit as much as they wanted. The emissions can contain sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates — all pollutants that can be dangerous when breathed in.

Suzie Canales, executive director of Corpus Christi, Texas-based Citizens for Environmental Justice, has been working with communities near power plants in Corpus Christi for 15 years. She said the communities near refinery row, a 10-mile stretch of refineries and power plants in the region, are regularly affected by power plants starting up, shutting down, and malfunctioning.

Not only do these operations expel pollution, Canales told ThinkProgress, they also cause huge booms that shake residents’ houses. She said the sound from the events can be so loud that it’s like being near multiple airplanes that are about to take off.

“You cannot hear the person next to you it gets so loud,” she said.

The events also cause “horrible, noxious odors that permeate [residents’] homes.” Canales said. “They cant escape it because even if they go inside, the smell is inside.”

Both Issod and Canales agree that the events are “illegal under the Clean Air Act.”

“We know it’s possible for industry to do better,” Issod said. “There are good actors out there that show that better management practices and improved technology can reduce this pollution.”

Some plants, for instance, will switch to natural gas when powering on, and then once they’re warmed up enough to employ their typical pollution controls, they’ll go back to burning oil or coal or whatever it is that they typically burn, Issod said.

Terry McGuire, a senior Washington representative with the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress that the new rule was important for communities living near power plants, who often have limited ability to push back or challenge rules surrounding the power plants’ pollution. According to a NAACP report from 2012, coal plants, in particular, disproportionately affect poor and minority communities. The report looked at 378 coal-fired power plants in the U.S., and found that the six million people living within three miles of the plant have an average per capita income of $18,400 per year. In addition, the report found, 39 percent of those people living near the plants were people of color.

And, McGuire said, though the rule was important, power plants aren’t the only pollution source affecting many of these communities.

“We’re talking about overburdened communities, who more likely than not live in areas more close to roadways,” he said. “This is a significant piece of the puzzle in bringing justice, equitable clean air, and water to these communities.”

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