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Pyrolysis & Gasification Exemption: A BIG Win for Local Communities

Image credit: book cover for “Evolution of a Movement” by Tracy E. Perkins.

By Stephen Lester.

In a major win for grassroots community groups throughout the country, the USEPA decided last week to withdraw its plan to relax clean air regulations applying to pyrolysis and gasification facilities. After receiving 170 comments mostly opposing the agency’s plan to relax its regulations, the EPA said that it needed more time to consider the many complex and significant comments it received. And while it’s being reviewed, the current Clean Air Act rules that apply to pyrolysis and gasification facilities will stay in place.

This mean that these processes will continue to be regulated on equal footing to incinerators, as they have been for nearly 30 years. Pyrolysis and gasification facilities are currently regulated under the Clean Air Act, and are required to meet strict emissions standards that include emissions monitoring and reporting requirements.

The EPA proposed changing the rules that applied to pyrolysis and gasification facilities during the Trump Administration following heavy lobbying from the plastics industry and the American Chemistry Council. The plastics industry has been pushing hard to get the agency to redefine what qualifies as an incinerator and to exclude pyrolysis and gasification facilities from this definition. Currently, these facilities are considered under the same rules that apply to incinerators. Had this change in policy been approved, there would be no air pollution rules or regulations that pyrolysis and gasification facilities would have to follow.

Over the past year or so, the American Chemistry Council has invested billions of dollars into projects that use pyrolysis and gasification to burn waste plastics. This investment is in lock step with the plastic industry that is looking for ways to address the growing quantities of plastic waste that is generated each year. In a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the annual production of plastic is expected to triple by 2060 to 1.23 billion metric tons yearly, while only a small portion (~9 percent) will actually be recycled.

The American Chemistry Council has also been working at the state level to pass legislation that redefines processes such as pyrolysis and gasification as non-waste. This is so that these facilities could be regulated as “recycling” facilities that manufacture a product, an energy, or a fuel than can be burned. In this way, these facilities do not have to meet the stringent air and water quality requirements that an incinerator has to meet. According to Inside Climate News, 24 states have currently passed laws that recognize these facilities as being manufacturing rather than waste management.

While this is a big win for the many grassroots groups, and statewide and national environmental groups that sent comments to EPA opposing this rule change, the plastics industry and its partners will not let this go easily. No doubt they will continue to push EPA to make this change. They have already invested too much in this effort. We need to continue to be vigilant in opposing efforts to relax the rules that apply to pyrolysis and gasification facilities. Congratulations to all who contributed to this effort!

Backyard Talk

ATSDR Fails Community Once Again

In July of 2013, an explosion occurred at the WTI/Heritage Thermal Services (HTS) hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, OH. Incinerator ash that had built up on the inside of the incinerator stack suddenly fell off causing a huge cloud of dust contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances to be released from the stack. An estimated 800 to 900 pounds of ash were released into the surrounding community. The plant manager advised residents to wash fruits and vegetables from their gardens and to replace food and water for pets and farm animals. Save Our County, a local group that has been fighting to shut down the incinerator for more than 20 years and other local residents were quite alarmed by what happened and asked whether this latest accident further put their health at risk.

The state regulating agency’s response was to invite the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to evaluate what risks the residents might have suffered. More than a year later, ATSDR released its report which concluded that the “trace amount of toxic metals in the surface and subsurface soils of the residential area west of the HTS facility affected by the July 2013 ash release are not expected to harm people’s health. The reason for this is that the concentration of these metals found in the soils are below levels of health concern.”

It’s not clear how ATSDR came to this conclusion when some of the data included in the report clearly show contaminant levels that exceeded levels of health concern. Two (of 13) soil samples, one on-site and one off-site, both downwind, had the highest levels of contaminants of concern (though they never disclosed what these levels were). The arsenic levels found in the surface soil of the surrounding community generally exceeded public health levels of concern, ranging from 14 to 57 parts per million (ppm), averaging 20 ppm. The public health level of concern is 15 ppm.

There is also data on two wipe samples (of 8) collected by HTS immediately after the accident that were found to contain 3,600 ppm arsenic; 13,000 ppm lead and 8,000 ppm nickel. These samples were collected from areas on-site where trucks at the facility were staged. These are all extraordinarily high and well above public health levels of concern.

Similarly, two wipe samples collected from the community had arsenic levels at 277 ppm and lead at 819 ppm, both levels well in excess of levels of public health concern. The report refers to a third sample collected from the surface of a black S10 pick-up truck with arsenic at 296 ppm and lead at 1,046 ppm also well above public health levels of concern.

Despite all of these results that exceeded public health levels of concern, ATSDR concluded that there is no cause for alarm and that the toxic metals released into the community “is not expected” to harm people’s health. It’s like someone at ATSDR wrote the conclusion without ever reading the report or looking at the data.

The ATSDR report simply ignores the data that exceeds public health levels of concern and draws its conclusions as though these high levels did not exist. How can anyone trust a government agency that operates this way?

This is what communities across the country have grown to expect from ATSDR – conclusions that are unresponsive to community concerns about potential health risks but protective of industrial pollution. Some things never change.