Clean Air Act:

EPA Should Improve the Management of Its Air Toxics Program

GAO-06-669: Published: Jun 23, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2006.

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The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) most recent data indicate that 95 percent of all Americans face an increased likelihood of developing cancer as a result of breathing air toxics--pollutants such as benzene and asbestos that may cause cancer or other serious health problems. Sources of air toxics include large industrial facilities, smaller facilities such as dry cleaners, and cars and trucks. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments required EPA to regulate 190 pollutants from these sources through a multifaceted regulatory program. While EPA issues federal standards, state and local agencies generally administer these standards, and some develop their own rules to complement the federal standards. In this context, GAO was asked to assess (1) EPA's progress and challenges in implementing the air toxics program, (2) available information on the program's costs and benefits, and (3) practices of state and local air toxics programs.

While EPA has made some progress in implementing its air toxics program mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, most of its regulatory actions were completed late and major aspects of the program have still not been addressed. Most of EPA's progress relates to issuing emissions standards for large stationary sources, although EPA completed these standards about 4 years behind schedule. However, many of the unmet requirements pertain to limiting emissions from small stationary and mobile sources, which collectively account for most emissions of air toxics. The agency faces continuing implementation challenges stemming from the program's low priority relative to other programs and related funding constraints. To this end, the agency lacks a comprehensive strategy for completing the unmet requirements or estimates of resources necessary to do so. Senior EPA officials said the program's agenda is largely set by external stakeholders who file litigation when the agency misses deadlines. As a result of EPA's limited progress, the agency has not addressed health risks from air toxics to the extent or in the time frames envisioned in the Clean Air Act. Senior EPA officials said that issuing standards for large stationary sources had addressed the greatest risks from air toxics and that other clean air programs also control air toxics as a side benefit. However, EPA does not have reliable data on the degree of risk reduction achieved through its regulations. Furthermore, the data that are available suggest that the agency has substantial opportunities to reduce emissions from mobile and small stationary sources. Available information on EPA's efforts to control air toxics is not sufficiently comprehensive to measure the program's total costs and benefits. Specifically, EPA has not comprehensively estimated the national economic costs of all air toxics standards and lacks the data necessary to assess the benefits of these standards, such as decreased incidence of cancer. Information on these impacts would help the agency assess the overall net benefits (total benefits minus total costs) of the air toxics program and compare these effects with those generated by higher-priority clean air programs, such as those intended to address smog. Data on other indicators of the program's effectiveness, such as changes in emissions, concentrations of air toxics in the (ambient) outdoor air, and data on compliance with air toxics standards are also limited and inconclusive. The state and local programs we reviewed use practices that could potentially help EPA enhance the effectiveness of its air toxics program. For example, several state programs have systematic approaches for identifying and prioritizing new pollutants that could inform EPA's efforts to meet the act's requirement to review and update the list of regulated pollutants.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Documentation provided by EPA on June 4, 2010 was not sufficient to close the recommendation as implemented. According to EPA, "OAR has established two primary Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) measures for monitoring the progress of air toxic program efforts. The EPA is preparing a report to provide an update on the urban air toxic strategy which will consider other potential program measures."

    Recommendation: To improve the management of EPA's air toxics program and enhance its ability to reduce risks of cancer and other adverse health effects, the EPA Administrator should require the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation to develop an air toxics program improvement plan that outlines an approach and timelines for improving the agency's ability to measure the program's costs and benefits.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Documentation provided by EPA on June 4, 2010 was not sufficient to close the recommendation as implemented. According to EPA, its efforts to process petitions to add and delete substances from the list of regulated hazardous air pollutants constitutes compliance with the "periodic review" requirement of section 112(b)(2) of the Clean Air Act.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of EPA's air toxics program and enhance its ability to reduce risks of cancer and other adverse health effects, the EPA Administrator should require the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation to develop an air toxics program improvement plan that establishes a process and timelines for meeting the act's requirements to periodically review and update the list of air toxics.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Documentation provided by EPA on June 4, 2010 was not sufficient to close the recommendation as implemented. According to EPA, "OAR has prioritized activities based on potential to reduce air toxic emissions. OAR has already issued regulations that are achieving reductions in mobile source air toxics (MSATs) from highway vehicles as well as nonroad engines and equipment. Between 2011 and 2013, OAR will issue 26 residual risk standards addressing risk from highly toxic pollutants such as hexavalent chrome, dioxin, mercury and other metallic compounds. Emission reductions will yield important multi-pollutant benefits, since toxic pollutants take the form of both volatile and particulate releases, and reducing these releases benefits communities by also reducing their ozone and particulate matter exposure."

    Recommendation: To improve the management of EPA's air toxics program and enhance its ability to reduce risks of cancer and other adverse health effects, the EPA Administrator should require the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation to develop an air toxics program improvement plan that prioritizes activities within the air toxics program, placing the highest priority on those actions that have the greatest potential to address health risks, to the extent permitted by the Clean Air Act.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Documentation provided by EPA on June 4, 2010 was not sufficient to close the recommendation as implemented. According to EPA, the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) "has developed a schedule for meeting the highest priority activities and for the first time in almost a decade, OAR has shifted funds from other programs into the air program to help meet some of its statutory mandates. By utilizing the MACT program, EPA's most powerful tool to reduce emissions of air toxics, OAR wrote 96 MACT rules covering 187 pollutants from 174 categories. This level of effort continues, with 131 rules in progress: 26 of these rules will be finalized by 2013 and will address residual risk and technology improvements OAR is in the process of identifying and procuring additional resources that will allow us to create an adequate base to support a sustainable toxics program and which can support us in achieving significant reductions in toxics and other pollution that will improve public health."

    Recommendation: To improve the management of EPA's air toxics program and enhance its ability to reduce risks of cancer and other adverse health effects, the EPA Administrator should require the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation to develop an air toxics program improvement plan that provides a detailed schedule for completing its mandated air toxics activities and identifies the staffing and funding resources needed to meet the schedule and address the health risk assessment needs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Documentation provided by EPA on June 4, 2010 was not sufficient to close the recommendation as implemented. According to EPA, "OAR is developing a strategy for addressing HAP that will be carried out in cooperation with other EPA Offices; other federal, state and local environmental and health agencies; and other stakeholders, to reduce exposure to HAP in our communities." In addition, EPA commented that "OAR will continue with current voluntary program and analyze the quality of the data once the 2005 (and 2008) National Air Toxics Assessment is completed in 2011 to determine if any further actions are warranted."

    Recommendation: To improve the management of EPA's air toxics program and enhance its ability to reduce risks of cancer and other adverse health effects, the EPA Administrator should require the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation to develop an air toxics program improvement plan that describes how the agency plans to improve its air toxics emissions inventory, including a discussion of the statutory authority for, and the merits of, requiring states and emissions sources to submit standardized emissions data.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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