When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created more than 40 years ago, it established many rules whose full consequences couldn’t possibly be known at the time. There have been so many advancements in technology that affect the environment that the agency has been forced to become an ever-changing entity, constantly adapting its rules and guidelines, as well as keeping on top of those that are being misused or ignored.
One policy from the early days of the EPA and the Clean Air Act has come under great scrutiny recently from normally such EPA-friendly groups as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): the SSM Rule.
SSM stands for “start-up, shut-down, and malfunction,” and the original rule stated that while industries had to meet a certain guideline for the amount of toxins released into the air during normal operations, they were allowed to exceed that limit when the plant was starting up, shutting down, or malfunctioning.
Over the past few decades, companies have taken advantage of this exemption. The result is that toxins are being released at five to 10 times their normal level, creating unsafe living conditions for people in places like Michigan and Louisiana, just to name a few.
“One of the families I talked to lived in Detroit, and the blasts from the ‘malfunctions’ were so powerful that it shook her ceiling roofs and she had trouble breathing when going outside,” said Terry McGuire, an associate representative with the Sierra Club. “This factory was having malfunctions 5-10 times a day, and there’s no way you could stay in a legitimate business if your machines were truly breaking all that much. People who live near these factories know what the normal procedure is, and they’re not complaining about that. But what’s happening now with these malfunctions is just unacceptable.”
To combat companies from abusing the SSM rule, the EPA has come up with a proposal to close the loopholes, and requiring 36 states to follow them or face sanctions. (14 states were found to have laws regarding SSM that were sufficiently strict and had no loopholes).
The EPA’s rule, outlined here, states that the agency’s actions would “address outdated provisions, improve national consistency and provide clarity for the treatment of emissions that occur during SSM.”
The new EPA rule will allow companies to defend and prove why they were in SSM mode when faced with “circumstances beyond their control” and would shield a facility from monetary penalties, but not from the responsibility to take action to limit future problems.”
The EPA provision also gives a state 18 months to correct and fix their loophole-filled legislation or face further action, including a Federal Implementation Plan, which would basically allow the EPA to impose its rule.
“The best-case scenario is that the rules are implemented on time, and the states make the necessary corrections there without having to be forced to,” Walke said. “The reason normal people should care about all this is that once polluters and communities are sure that companies are breaking the law, they will be required to make changes and our air will be cleaner, and people won’t have to inhale so many pollutants.”
Pew, who’s been fighting this fight for years now, isn’t sure the 36 states will be in full compliance quickly.
“The EPA will set a level on a national emissions standard for particulate matter, and each state government has to figure out how to get there, but there’s no telling how long it will take each state to make their changes,” he said. “The key will be the EPA truly following up and seeing that the law is adhered to.”