EIP, Sierra Club Sue EPA for Failing to Properly Regulate Air Pollution From Nitric Acid Plants

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Feb. 4 against EPA for violating its duty to review and update its emission standards for nitric acid plants, which produce chemicals used in the fertilizer and explosives industries.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to update these standards every 8 years, and according to EIP and the Sierra Club, EPA already is more than 16 years late.

Nitric acid plants generate nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. EIP and Sierra Club hope the information developed during the review will persuade EPA to start regulating N2O emissions. Nitric acid plants are, by far, the largest industrial source of N2O in the United States, with emissions that could be controlled easily.

Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said: "EPA would get a lot of bang for its buck by regulating N2O emissions from nitric acid plants. The technology for controlling N2O is cost-effective and, because N2O is such a powerful greenhouse gas, removing even a little of it would make a big difference."

When asked for comment, Cathy Milbourn, EPA spokesperson, told EHS Today, “This is among many issues here at EPA that the new team will be reviewing.”

Harmful Pollutants

Nitric acid plants also generate nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are the raw ingredients of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. EPA recently has discovered that these types of air pollution are much more dangerous to public health than was previously suspected. It is now clear that these pollutants cause respiratory problems, heart disease and many premature deaths. In addition, better and more cost-effective technologies for controlling NOx emissions have been developed since the last standards were set 24 years ago.

"Our goal is to prompt EPA to review its standards for nitric acid plants, as it should have done years ago,” said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel of Sierra Club. “The review will give the public a chance to show EPA that dangerous NOx emissions from nitric acid plants can be reduced at a reasonable cost."

EIP and the Sierra Club are hopeful that, under the Obama administration, EPA will move quickly to review and revise the NSPS for nitric acid plants. Indeed, in a memo to EPA employees, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA Administrator, has committed to giving "personal attention" to "reducing greenhouse gas emissions" and "improving air quality."

EIP and Sierra Club notified EPA of their intent to sue the agency in an October 7, 2008 letter. Because EPA did not commence a review of the emission standard for nitric acid plants during the 60-day notice period, the parties are now seeking a court order compelling EPA to review its outdated rule. The standard has not been revised since it was adopted in 1971, and the last review took place twenty-four years ago, in 1984.

EIP and Sierra Club believe EPA should move quickly to review and revise the emission standard for nitric acid plants. Texas and Louisiana, for instance, are home to several large nitric acid plants. The people in these states, particularly in the Gulf Coast region, are suffering from serious air pollution problems. Moreover, both states have been ravaged by hurricanes and other impacts from climate change.

EIP and the Sierra Club are represented by the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC) at Vermont Law School.

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