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EPA Finalizes Boiler Rule

Air Pollution: Standards will reduce hazardous emissions from chemical plants, refineries

by Glenn Hess
January 7, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 1

Credit: Shutterstock
Photo of an industrial boiler.
Credit: Shutterstock

After years of delay, the Environmental Protection Agency has finalized tough air pollution standards for large industrial boilers found at oil refineries, chemical plants, and other manufacturing facilities. But the soonest the rules can take effect is 2016.

For the first time, the steam-producing systems used to generate heat and power will face strict limits on emissions of mercury, acid gases, and fine particulate matter such as soot. The regulations are expected to reduce mercury emissions by 1.6 tons per year, or about 3% initially, for instance. EPA, however, will give boiler operators three years to meet the standards, with the option to request an additional year.

EPA first sought to regulate boiler emissions in 2004. But a federal appeals court in 2007 struck down the agency’s original standard, saying it violated the Clean Air Act. The rule was reissued in 2011 but industry groups blasted that version, arguing its emission limits were unachievable. EPA agreed to revise the measure after gathering additional data from industry.

“We appreciate EPA’s thoughtful consideration of these rules and willingness to make sensible changes,” says the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group. “While we need to review the rules for technical details, it appears that a number of improvements have been made.”

The changes will require pollution controls at about 2,300 of the largest and highest-emitting boilers nationwide. Another 197,000 smaller boilers will be able to meet the rule by conducting periodic maintenance or routine tune-ups, EPA says.

Although the most restrictive emission limits will affect less than 1% of the nation’s nearly 1.5 million boilers, they will impose major costs on the U.S. manufacturing sector. Industry will have to spend between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion annually to meet the standards, according to EPA estimates.

However, the agency says the emission reductions brought about by the new rule will thwart up to 8,100 premature deaths, prevent 5,100 heart attacks, and avert 52,000 asthma attacks each year.

The new standards will encourage U.S. industry to use cleaner-burning fuels and to make improvements in energy efficiency, says James Bradbury, senior associate at the World Resources Institute, a think tank. “This is good news for the manufacturing workforce, for public health, and for the climate,” he remarks.



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