Clean Air Act aspects explained for EJ community

Help from Dr. Jim Crooks, National Jewish Hospital and research center, Oct 2020

I thought I could explain how the Clean Air Act works and why it isn’t necessarily all that much help for communities like GES for nearby industrial emissions.  My apologies if y’all already know everything I’m about to say!  Also, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m sure there are subtleties to the Clean Air Act that I don’t understand well.  But I’ll do my best.

The EPA has health-based ambient air pollution standards (the National Ambient Air Quality Standards) for the six criteria pollutants (lead, PM, ozone, NO2, CO, SO2). These are the pollutants that Congress, through the Clean Air Act, specifically ordered EPA to regulate, and to regulate in the ambient air as opposed to at the emissions source.   The way these regulations have been implemented has focused attention on urban metropolitan areas as the relevant spatial unit rather than specific communities within that urban area.  For some pollutants like ozone this makes a lot of sense, but for other pollutants with major point or line sources it makes less sense. None of the criteria pollutants are VOCs.

Because the criteria pollutants affect so many people, the vast majority of the health research (funded by EPA, NIH, and HEI primarily) and much of the innovation in monitoring technology over the past 5 decades has focused on them, to the exclusion of other pollutants.  For example, the biggest population benefit bang for the research buck at the moment is in studying PM2.5.  You can buy a low-cost PM sensor for around $250. 

The Clean Air Act also sets out a permitting system for regulating industrial point-source emission of a different class of pollutants, air toxics, overlaps with VOCs.  The air toxics permitting rules are generally not phrased in terms of health-based standards, they’re just permits for emitting a certain tonnage in a certain period of time (often self-monitored), and if you emit more than the permit then there’s some sort of consequence. Whether this consequence is a slap on the wrist or not depends on how aggressive the state agency responsible for granting the permit is willing to be.   

Because air toxics are regulated in such a different way than criteria pollutants there has been *far* less research on their population health effects.  They are regulated more like industrial chemicals. For some of air toxics there is a body of toxicological research (say exposing lab mice to the chemical to see how much will kill them) showing biological damage.  But there’s very little population research to demonstrate broad or community impact.  So there’s a vicious cycle: It’s hard to justify a regulation without showing population impact, but hard to show population impact without the funding that comes with regulation.  Furthermore, measuring VOCs is slow and/or expensive, plus there are so darn many of them, and they don’t all have the same health effects.  They’re just hard to study.

The one other place where health-based standards appear is in occupational exposures established by OSHA.  But those are just for workers and unfortunately don’t apply to fenceline communities.  And there are definitely situations where the OSHA standards are set far higher than they probably ought to be given the state of the science.

So the upshot is that VOC emissions tend to be regulated directly through permitting and indirectly based on their impact on attainment of the ozone NAAQS.  If a region is out of attainment with the ozone NAAQS the government can require permitting for smaller and smaller VOC industrial sources.  Whether this results in a meaningful decrease in VOC emissions, though, I don’t really know.  Unfortunately, these two avenues of regulation don’t directly address the needs of fenceline communities.

The Clean Air Act, as far as I can remember, actually requires that regulations protect vulnerable populations.  However, the Act doesn’t mandate consultation or establish a particular process to make sure this actually happens, or even define what a vulnerable population is.  So communities like GES fall through the cracks of the Clean Air Act.

I haven’t even mentioned mobile sources (cars), which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful!

Jim