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.

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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.

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“[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.

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“[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.”

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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

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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.)