Environmental justice advisers are demanding that President Joe Biden step in to bring to an end nearly 15 years of waiting for updated pollution limits for big municipal incinerators.
Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency to specifically regulate incinerator emissions and update them every five years when it amended the Clean Air Act in 1990. But communities of color and other marginalized communities have waited through eight years of the Obama administration, the Trump presidency, and 18 months of the Biden administration—and still don’t have updated air pollution rules from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, which Biden tapped to elevate environmental equity issues, voted Thursday to send a letter urging the president’s Council on Environmental Quality to make updating the standards a top priority.
The EPA must update the limits “as quickly as possible and move forward as if lives were at stake, because they are,” according to the draft letter, which panel members said would be tweaked in the coming days before being sent to CEQ.
“In this instance, communities are not even requesting that new protective laws be created, only that EPA’s regulations meet the standards Congress required,” the letter says.
The Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates executive branch environmental policies, was given the lead role in the Biden administration to ensure agencies take the broad actions he pledged to address communities that have long borne the brunt of pollution.
Neither the CEQ nor the EPA immediately responded to a request for comment.
Falling Behind Technology
The White House panel’s focus on incinerators as an environmental justice priority comes amid increasing concerns that many of the trash-burning operations are outdated.
Most municipal incinerators were constructed in the 1980s, with only one built after 1995, according to WHEJAC letter, and “yet continue to operate with outdated technology and insufficient pollution control devices.”
The US generates nearly five pounds of municipal solid waste per person each day, according to EPA figures. While roughly 32% of that waste is either recycled or composted, the remainder is either landfilled or incinerated.
Dozens of municipal waste incinerators are located across the nation, most of which are in marginalized and low-income communities already overburdened with air, chemical, and other pollution, according to Earthjustice.
“Our communities need to see tangible action from this administration, especially when it comes to using authorities long ago granted to agencies like the EPA,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, a WHEJAC member and deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corp., a New Jersey-based environmental justice group. Further delay or inaction would amount to a “commitment to environmental racism,” she said.
“It’s time to pay attention to what we can do today that improves the lives of real people instead of continuing the regulatory holidays EPA has been giving toxic industries for decades,” she said.
The panel also voted Thursday to send recommendations to strengthen Biden’s Justice40 effort, which calls for steering 40% of the overall benefits of clean energy, climate change, affordable housing, and certain other federal funding to poorer and marginalized populations disproportionately affected by pollution.
It also recommended strengthening a governmentwide Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool being developed to better identify such communities.
The Justice40 recommendations reiterated the WHEJAC panel’s strong opposition to Biden actions that support fossil fuels, noting the president’s recent urging of oil company CEOs to boost production to lower fuel prices.
Such moves, they argue, are counterproductive to stemming the effects of climate change and pollution disproportionately impacting poorer communities.
The panel made a similar recommendation in May 2021 on carbon capture and storage, arguing that agencies should be barred from considering the technologies as beneficial to such communities given they are likely to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels for generations and burden marginalized communities with the bulk of pipelines and other infrastructure for carbon capture and storage.
Federal resources promoting fossil fuel infrastructure “perpetuate the marginalization of the voices of those who have borne the greatest burden of pollution and use disadvantaged communities as testing grounds for unproven technologies,” the panel said in its latest recommendations.