The EPA Wants to Regulate Factories Like Your Local Dry Cleaners

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

The Environmental Protection Agency wants to reclassify major pollution sources like power plants and factories so that they face less regulation—and this spells trouble for the low-income communities and people of color who live near this pollution.


The agency announced Thursday it would be ending the so-called “once in, always in” policy. The repeal must still enter the Federal Register to be official, but best believe the EPA will get it done. What that policy—which has been in place since 1995 under the Clean Air Act—did was single out all “major” polluters, polluters that emit 10 tons a year of any listed toxic air pollutants, or 25 tons a year of a mix of these pollutants. They’d essentially end up on a list that placed stricter regulations on them.

The agency would expect that polluter to implement advanced air pollution control technologies to reduce their emissions by a lot, 90 percent or more in some cases. For example, the agency could require installing an incinerator that grows so hot it destroys chemicals that would, otherwise, escape through the smokestacks. Under the “once in, always in” policy, once a source was large enough to be considered a major pollutant, it would always have to keep its air pollution control technologies.

Still following? Without this policy, a new factory, for example, could install just enough technology to fall off the “major” list and instead be classified as an “area” pollution source. Area pollution sources, which are supposed to be smaller facilities (like the local dry cleaner or that corner auto shop), aren’t regulated as stringently. The EPA rarely requires them to implement advanced air pollution control technologies.

So without the rule, a facility could end up sneaking its way onto the “area” source pollutants list with a little tweak here or there. Sure, they’d be emitting one ton fewer toxins, but if the same facility was on the major polluter list, it could be emitting nine fewer tons. That’s a big difference.

“The goal of the Clean Air Act is to reduce emissions of air toxics,” explained Janet McCabe, who used to serve the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, which put out this policy change, to Earther. “I use that example of nine tons versus one ton because when you add all those sources up around the country, that’s many, many tons of air toxins


The point of keeping these emitters on this major polluters list is, well, they’ve already shown the EPA that they’re not small enough to be an area pollutant source.


“[This policy is] an interpretation of statute and regulations that, essentially, said if you’re a major source, then, your obligation is to put on these good controls and you can’t avoid that obligation by reducing your pollution a little bit,” McCabe went on.

Pruitt’s withdrawal of the rule is no surprise, given the direction the federal government is headed. The administration has been rolling back rule after rule, and that’s just within the one year since President Donald Trump entered the White House.


“[This guidance] will reduce regulatory burden for industries and the states, while continuing to ensure stringent and effective controls on hazardous air pollutants,” said EPA Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, in a press release.

As the agency works to please industries, public health suffers. Hazardous air pollutants—like benzene and particulate matter—are dangerous for humans to breathe. Low income communities and communities of color that are already disproportionately exposed may now face additional threats.


“Now, you’ll have coal-fired power plants and these other really big facilities that could be regulated like they are these area sources,” said Mustafa Ali, former EPA environmental justice head who is now a senior vice president at the Hip Hop Caucus, to Earther. “Many of these larger polluting sources are located in frontline communities.”

Ali doesn’t imagine that any of the current EPA administrators have gone into the towns and cities that will bear these impacts.


“If they did, then there is no way anyone who has any form of humanity or morality would sign off on this stuff—if you actually saw what’s happening in vulnerable communities,” he told Earther. “That’s just real talk.”

Mustafa Ali. Photo: Getty
Mustafa Ali. Photo: Getty

Both McCabe and Ali expect environmental and community groups to respond to this move with litigation. And who can blame them? People’s lives are on the line, literally. In 2015, air pollution killed an estimated 9 million people prematurely around the world. *

“They’re really going to be killing people,” Ali said. “You’re going to have all types of public health problems.”


* Correction: The 9 million deaths in 2015 were globally, not in the U.S. alone, as the story previously stated. My bad times forever. These are the kinds of careless errors that keep me up at night. (Thanks, parzimillio, for pointing this out.)

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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Yeah no. This is basically helping out facilities like nuclear power and coal plants refineries, natural gas plants, oil and gas lease site processing plants, met coke plants, and any facility with a bunch of major polluting units of operations (discharge stacks) within the site boundary. Nuke plants are monitored for radionuclides, which may spew even during normal operations.

Basically what Pruitt is doing is putting city, state and regional EPA administrators nuts (or ovaries) in a vice. So much for “states” rights. Pruitt whined about US EPA overseeing fracking under “states rights.” Jagoff.

The old interpretation of CAA granted more oversight and enforcement capabilities to those closer to the source, i.e. mayors and local environmental agencies.

Here’s the definitions of sources from the Clean Air Act section 112(a) as it stands.

(1) Major source. - The term “major source” means any

stationary source or group of stationary sources located within

a contiguous area and under common control that emits or has

the potential to emit considering controls, in the aggregate,

10 tons per year or more of any hazardous air pollutant or 25

tons per year or more of any combination of hazardous air

pollutants. The Administrator may establish a lesser quantity,

or in the case of radionuclides different criteria, for a major

source than that specified in the previous sentence, on the

basis of the potency of the air pollutant, persistence,

potential for bioaccumulation, other characteristics of the

air pollutant, or other relevant factors.

(2) Area source. - The term “area source” means any

stationary source of hazardous air pollutants that is not a

major source. For purposes of this section, the term “area

source” shall not include motor vehicles or nonroad vehicles

subject to regulation under title II.

(3) Stationary source. - The term “stationary source” shall

have the same meaning as such term has under section 111(a).

(4) New source. - The term “new source” means a stationary

source the construction or reconstruction of which is commenced

after the Administrator first proposes regulations under this

section establishing an emission standard applicable to such


(5) Modification. - The term “modification” means any

physical change in, or change in the method of operation of, a

major source which increases the actual emissions of any

hazardous air pollutant emitted by such source by more than a

de minimis amount or which results in the emission of any

hazardous air pollutant not previously emitted by more than a

de minimis amount.

(6) Hazardous air pollutant. - The term “hazardous air

pollutant” means any air pollutant listed pursuant to subsec-

tion (b).

(7) Adverse environmental effect. - The term “adverse

environmental effect” means any significant and widespread

adverse effect, which may reasonably be anticipated, to

wildlife, aquatic life, or other natural resources, including

adverse impacts on populations of endangered or threatened

species or significant degradation of environmental quality

over broad areas.

(8) Electric utility steam generating unit. - The term

“electric utility steam generating unit” means any fossil fuel

fired combustion unit of more than 25 megawatts that serves a

generator that produces electricity for sale. A unit that

cogenerates steam and electricity and supplies more than

one-third of its potential electric output capacity and more

than 25 megawatts electrical output to any utility power

distribution system for sale shall be considered an electric

utility steam generating unit.

(9) Owner or operator. - The term “owner or operator” means

any person who owns, leases, operates, controls, or supervises

a stationary source.

(10) Existing source. - The term “existing source” means

any stationary source other than a new source.

(11) Carcinogenic effect. - Unless revised, the term

“carcinogenic effect” shall have the meaning provided by the

Administrator under Guidelines for Carcinogenic Risk Assessment

as of the date of enactment. Any revisions in the existing

Guidelines shall be subject to notice and opportunity for