New Map Shows Location of Nation’s Most Toxic Industrial Boilers

Most of the biggest polluting industrial boilers are in manufacturing states east of the Mississippi River, but 68 dot the West coast states.

U.S. Steel's Gary Works industrial power plant in Gary, Indiana
U.S. Steel's Gary Works industrial power plant in Gary, Indiana

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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.”

Map by Earthjustice shows industrial plants that will need to meet EPA emission limits for boilers. Click for interactive version.

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.

States with the most industrial power plants/boilers
Rank State No. Industrial Plants No. Industrial Boilers
 1  N. Carolina  166  52
 2  Pennsylvania  99  35
 3  S. Carolina  91  41
 4  Virginia 87  39
 5  Indiana  86  30
 6  Michigan  84  34
 7  Ohio  83 37
 8  Wisconsin  72  31
 9  Minnesota  68  31
 10  Alabama  61 33

Source: Earthjustice, The Toxic Air Burden from Industrial Power Plants

Convoluted History

The impetus to rein in industrial boiler pollution came from Congress when it approved amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990. But the ensuing journey has been lengthy and convoluted. Earthjustice attorneys first intervened on behalf of the Sierra Club in the late 1990s.

“When EPA came out with those initial standards in 2004, they were blatantly illegal because there were no emission control standards,” Pew said. “It was sort of like a speed limit that tells people they can go as fast as they like.”

After years of legal wrangling, the agency rolled out draft rules in 2010 that were tweaked into shape by February 2011. However, stakeholders howled so loudly that EPA agreed to rejigger them before delivering again in December. The newest regulations are projected to cost industry $2.3 billion annually. That’s a savings of $1.5 billion over the $3.8 billion price tag EPA assigned to the rules in 2010.

The American Forest & Paper Association and numerous other industry groups label the regulations burdensome. They have joined some members of Congress who complain about how expensive rules are likely threatening thousands of jobs at factories that can’t afford to comply. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents air pollution control agencies, released a study in late 2010 debunking exaggerated claims about exorbitant costs and job losses.

Back in October, the House voted 275-142 to pass a measure that permanently exempts industrial boilers from the Clean Air Act. The bill sponsored by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) drew the backing of 41 Democrats.

It’s difficult to predict what might unfold in the upper chamber. A bill to delay and alter the boiler regulations co-sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) appeared to be going nowhere after it was introduced last summer.

But that situation changed Tuesday when Collins introduced a similar bill that she wants attached as a rider to the Senate’s pending multi-year transportation and infrastructure legislation.

That unpredictability keeps Pew and his colleagues on edge.

“It’s always scary,” Pew said. “It seems that whenever a piece of legislation goes flying by, some member will try to attach [an anti-boiler MACT] bill. It would be terrible if they were successful in killing this off.”