WASHINGTON—Industries in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina will have the most catching up to do when—and if—EPA begins forcing factory owners to tackle toxic emissions from boilers powering their manufacturing plants.
That's what Earthjustice discovered recently by creating a map pinpointing the whereabouts of the 1,753 industrial boilers that would be forced to curb pollutants under new regulations crafted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bulk of the "offending" boilers are operating in manufacturing-heavy states east of the Mississippi River.
"We've been scratching our heads figuring out how to make this conversation about industrial power plants more real," Jim Pew, a staff attorney with the nonprofit environmental law firm, told InsideClimate News. "The term boiler is misleading because people think it is what's in their own basement. But the scale of these on-site power sources is enormous.
People don't realize industrial power plants can be next door to their homes, Pew said. "Living near one of these plants, you are being exposed to a lot of pollution. People should know what these plants are emitting so they understand why they should be controlled."
An industrial boiler resembles a large round tank. Pipes deliver fuel, air, and water to it and stacks vent emissions to either the atmosphere or air pollution control equipment. Inside the boiler, fuel is burned to produce steam that is piped away from the tank to produce on-site electricity or heat.
Generally, the industrial boilers in EPA's crosshairs are burning fuels such as coal, oil and biomass to make steam and create on-site electricity.
EPA floated its latest package of boiler rules Dec. 2. The 60-day public comment period closed last Tuesday. Agency authorities expect to release final regulations this spring. Unless Congress quashes the rules, they will go into effect within the next few years.
The standards—known overall as the Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT)—would slice emissions of toxic pollutants including mercury, sulfur dioxide, dioxin, lead, nitrogen dioxide and particulates even more slender than the width of a human hair.
EPA has estimated that its new boiler rules will prevent up to 8,100 premature deaths, 5,100 heart attacks and 52,000 cases of aggravated asthma.
Earthjustice research reveals that the 1,753 toxic boilers it is targeting are within 758 individual facilities in 44 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
States with 50 or more potentially noncompliant boilers include North Carolina with 166, Pennsylvania with 99, South Carolina with 91, Virginia with 87, Indiana with 86, Michigan with 84, Ohio with 83, Wisconsin with 72, Minnesota with 68, Alabama with 61, Illinois with 60, Tennessee with 59, Georgia with 55 and Iowa with 51.
Steel mills, paper mills, chemical companies and other manufacturers often rely on multiple boilers at one location to meet their power needs. For instance, North Carolina’s 166 boilers are spread out at 52 facilities.
Earthjustice's state-by-state breakdown of potentially noncompliant boilers did not include Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah or Vermont. For the most part, those six states have small industrial bases.
The Sierra Club is a longtime champion of pressuring EPA officials to limit emissions from industrial boilers. Earthjustice has handled the legal angles of the advocacy organization’s pursuit.
Toxic Emissions of Industrial Boilers
Combined, the 1,753 factory boilers subject to regulation account for annual emissions of 10,000 pounds of mercury, 215,000 pounds of lead; 123,000 pounds of chromium, 100 million pounds of hydrochloric acid; and 100 million pounds of fine particulate matter.
These boilers are the nation's third largest source of mercury pollution, according to the EPA.
"The amazing thing is that so few of the industrial power plants are responsible for an extraordinary amount of pollution," Pew said. "A tiny subset of a big group of plants is doing so much of the harm."
EPA's long overdue rules are geared to cover two categories of boilers—14,000 major source boilers and 187,000 area source boilers.
Eighty-eight percent of the major source boilers—about 12,300—can meet emissions standards via annual tune-ups. The remaining 12 percent—which covers the 1,753 boilers that Earthjustice’s map focuses on—would need refurbishing or replacement to minimize toxic emissions.
Ninety-eight percent of the area source boilers—close to 183,300—would be able to meet emissions standards by following a regular tune-up schedule. The remaining 2 percent, about 3,700, would have to undergo upgrades to control toxic emissions.
Regulations would directly benefit people now living near dirtier boilers, according to EPA officials. They figure Americans would receive $12 to $30 in health benefits for every dollar spent to meet the proposed standards.