June 16, 2024

New Environmental Protection Agency rules aim to crack down on toxic air pollution from US steelmakers by limiting pollutants such as mercury, benzene and lead that have long poisoned the air in neighborhoods surrounding the plants.

The rules target contaminants released by steel facilities’ coke ovens. Gas from the ovens creates an individual cancer risk in the air around steel plants of 50 in 1,000,000, which public health advocates say is dangerous for children and people with underlying health problems.

The chemicals do not travel far from the plant, but advocates say they have been devastating for public health in “fenceline” low income neighborhoods around steel facilities, and represent an environmental justice issue.

“People have long faced significant health risks, like cancer, due to coke oven pollution,” said Patrice Simms, Earthjustice’s vice-president for healthy communities. The rules are “crucial for safeguarding communities and workers near coke ovens”.

Coke ovens are chambers that heat up coal to produce coke, a hard deposit used to make steel. Gas produced by the ovens is classified by EPA as a known human carcinogen and contains a mix of hazardous chemicals, heavy metals and volatile compounds.

Many of the chemicals are linked to serious health issues, including severe eczema, respiratory problems and digestive lesions.

Amid increasing evidence of the gas’s toxicity in recent years, the EPA did little to rein in the pollution, critics say. Environmental groups have been pushing for new limits and better monitoring and Earthjustice in 2019 sued the EPA over the issue.

Coke ovens have especially plagued cities in upper midwest industrial regions and Alabama. In Detroit, a coke plant that for a decade has violated air quality standards thousands of times is at the center of continuing litigation that alleges sulfur dioxide produced by coke oven gas has sickened nearby residents in a predominantly Black neighborhood, though the new rules do not cover that contaminant.

The rules, published on Friday, require “fenceline” testing around the plants, and, if a contaminant is found to exceed the new limits, steel makers must identify the source and take action to lower the levels.

The rules also remove loopholes industry previously used to avoid reporting emissions, like exempting emissions limits during malfunctions.

Testing outside a Pittsburgh plant operated by US Steel, one of the nation’s largest producers, found levels of benzene, a carcinogen, that were 10 times higher than the new limits. A US Steel spokesperson told the Allegheny Front the rules would be virtually impossible to implement and would have “unprecedented costs and potentially unintended adverse environmental impacts”.

“The costs would be unprecedented and unknown because there are no proven control technologies for certain hazardous air pollutants,” the spokesperson said.

Adrienne Lee, an Earthjustice attorney, told the Guardian the rule is based off industry data provided to the EPA, and she noted the rules generally will not reduce emissions, but prevent exceedances.

“I find it hard to believe [the limits] will be difficult to meet,” Lee said.

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