Lethal Loophole: How the ˜Clear Skies’ Bill Allows Oil Refineries and Chemical Plants to Emit More Toxic Air Pollutants

The Bush administration has touted its so-called “Clear Skies” bill as a way to clean up power plant emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, soot-forming sulfur dioxide, and toxic mercury.

Report

Environment Colorado

Executive Summary

The Bush administration has touted its so-called “Clear Skies” bill as a way to clean up power plant emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, soot-forming sulfur dioxide, and toxic mercury. In reality, this bill would allow power plants to pollute more and longer than under the current Clean Air Act. Moreover, a just-discovered provision in the bill weakens current law for other industries as well, including pulp and paper mills, oil refineries, and chemical plants, among others. These industrial units could “opt in” to the bill and “opt out” of existing requirements to reduce their emissions of dozens of toxic air pollutants that cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems. 

Specifically, the “Clear Skies” bill (S.131) would exempt as many as 58,000 industrial boilers, commercial and institutional boilers, and process heaters used at industrial facilities such as pulp and paper mills, oil refineries, and chemical plants from a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule that requires these units to reduce their toxic emissions to the maximum extent possible by 2007. The bill also would exempt these units from other major Clean Air Act requirements, including New Source Review and visibility protections for national parks and wilderness areas. Boilers and process heaters emit a wide variety of toxic air pollutants, depending on the fuel burned, including arsenic, benzene, chromium, hydrogen chloride, and lead, among others. 

EPA has performed no analyses to date on the effects of this loophole on public health or the environment. As a first step to understand its potential implications, this report uses EPA data to estimate the number of industrial facilities in Colorado that could take advantage of the loophole and their annual emissions of toxic air pollution. 

This hidden provision in the “Clear Skies” bill could exempt as many as 220 industrial facilities in Colorado from the Clean Air Act’s mandate of deep reductions in toxic pollution. The industries covered by the loophole emitted almost 1.6 million pounds of toxic air pollutants into Colorado’s air in 2002. The loophole would allow these industries to continue to emit harmful chemicals into Colorado’s air, threatening the health of citizens across the state. 

The “Clear Skies” bill has always been a bad deal for Americans and Coloradans who want to breathe clean air; this hidden loophole for many different industries makes it even worse.

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Tim Rains / NPS | Public Domain

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