EPA updates emission standards for boilers and incinerators

December 02, 2011

December 2, 2011

Today, December 2, 2011, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding a press conference to discuss proposed changes to the March 2011 Clean Air Act emissions standards for large and small boilers and incinerators that burn solid waste.  This comes on the heels of EPA announcing that it, a federal agency, will "help" states monitor and enforce pollution transgressions at the state level (read more here).

Today's announced standards from EPA apply to only about 200,000 boilers and incinerators in the US.  They are the ones that emit what EPA calls "harmful air pollution," a moniker that aptly includes:

  1. mercury
  2. cadmium
  3. particle pollution

In the end this affects less than 1% of boilers that emit the majority of pollution from this sector. In other words, more than 99 percent of boilers in the country are either clean enough that they are not covered by these standards or will only need to conduct maintenance and tune-ups to comply.

The high emitting boilers that fall into the 1% are typically operating at refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities.  For these, EPA is proposing more targeted emissions limits that protect Americans’ health and provide industry with practical, cost-effective options to meet the standards – informed by data from these stakeholders. These limits are based on currently available technologies that are in use by sources across the country.


  •     EPA's proposed standards will control toxic air emissions from boilers located at large and small sources of air toxics
  •     There are more than 1.5 million boilers in the U.S.
  •     For 86 percent of all boilers in the United States, these rules would not apply, because these boilers burn clean natural gas at area source facilities and emit little pollution
  •     For almost 13 percent of all boilers in the United States, EPA’s standards would continue to rely on practical, cost-effective work practice standards to reduce emissions
  •     For the highest emitting 0.4 percent of all boilers in the United States, including boilers located at refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities, EPA is proposing more targeted revised emissions limits that provide industry practical, protective, cost-effective options to meet the standards
  •     These rules are developed under sections 112 and 129 of the Clean Air Act, two provisions that target toxic air pollution
  •     Under these sections, EPA is required to set technology-based standards for toxic air pollutants, reflective of levels achieved by the best performing existing sources

Soot and other harmful pollutants released by boilers and incinerators can lead tWaste disposal industrialo adverse health effects including cancer, heart disease, aggravated asthma and premature death. In addition, toxic pollutants such as mercury and lead that will be reduced by this proposal are linked to developmental disabilities in children. These standards will avoid up to 8,100 premature deaths, prevent 5,100 heart attacks and avert 52,000 asthma attacks per year in 2015.

About boilers and incinerators

Boilers burn natural gas, coal, wood, oil, or other fuel to produce steam. The steam is used to produce electricity or provide heat. Process heaters heat raw or intermediate materials during an industrial process. Boilers and process heaters are used at wide variety of facilities and may stand alone.

Incinerators burn waste to dispose of it.  Some recover energy.  EPA has established emissions standards for commercial and industrial solid waste incinerators (CISWI). There are 95 solid waste incinerators that burn waste at commercial or industrial facilities. These standards will reduce emissions of harmful pollutants including mercury, lead, cadmium, nitrogen dioxide and particle pollution.

Boiler and incinerator regulations are closely related because similar units may be considered boilers or incinerators based on whether or not they burn solid waste materials.

To wit: EPA is also proposing changes to how to determine which non-hazardous secondary materials would be considered solid waste and which would be considered fuel. This distinction would determine whether a material can be burned in a boiler or whether it must be burned in an incinerator.

More about less (emissions)  The reconsidered standards would lessen emissions by setting emission limits for less than one percent of boilers, achieve public health benefits while increasing flexibility and responding to public input.

"With this action, EPA is applying the right standards to the right boilers," said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, in a statement. "Gathering the latest and best real-world information is leading to practical, affordable air pollution safeguards that will provide the vital and overdue health protection that Americans deserve."

As a result of further information gathered through the reconsideration process, including significant dialog and meetings with stakeholders, the proposal maintains the dramatic cuts in the cost of implementation that were achieved in the final rules issued in March while continuing to deliver significant public health benefits. As a result, EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to cut these pollutants, the public will see $12 to $30 in health benefits, including fewer premature deaths.

Dollar value review:  EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to cut these pollutants, the public will see $12 to $30 in health benefits, including fewer premature deaths.

That's the first time we've heard it put quite that way.  Good angle, we thought.

Details of proposed changes  Some of the key changes EPA is proposing include:

A. Boilers at large sources of air toxics emissions: The major source proposal covers approximately 14,000 boilers – less than one percent of all boilers in the United States – located at large sources of air pollutants, including refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities. EPA is proposing to create additional subcategories and revise emissions limits. EPA is also proposing to provide more flexible compliance options for meeting the particle pollution and carbon monoxide limits, replace numeric emissions limits with work practice standards for certain pollutants, allow more flexibility for units burning clean gases to qualify for work practice standards and reduce some monitoring requirements. EPA estimates that the cost of implementing these standards remains about $1.5 billion less than the April 2010 proposed standards. Health benefits to children and the public associated with reduced exposure to fine particles and ozone from these large source boilers have increased by almost 25 percent and are estimated to be $27 billion to $67 billion in 2015.

B.  Boilers located at small sources of air toxics emissions: The proposal also covers about 187,000 boilers located at small sources of air pollutants, including commercial buildings, universities, hospitals and hotels. However, due to how little these boilers emit, 98 percent of area source boilers would simply be required to perform maintenance and routine tune-ups to comply with these standards. Only 2 percent of area source boilers may need to take additional steps to comply with the rule. To increase flexibility for most of these sources, EPA is proposing to require initial compliance tune-ups after two years instead after the first year.

C.  Solid waste incinerators and revisions to the list of non-hazardous secondary materials: There are 95 solid waste incinerators that burn waste at a commercial or an industrial facility, including cement manufacturing facilities. EPA is proposing to adjust emissions limits for waste-burning cement kilns and for energy recovery units.

D.  EPA is also proposing revisions to its final rule which identified the types of non-hazardous secondary materials that can be burned in boilers or solid waste incinerators. Following the release of that final rule, stakeholders expressed concerns regarding the regulatory criteria for a non-hazardous secondary material to be considered a legitimate, non-waste fuel, and how to demonstrate compliance with those criteria. To address these concerns, EPA’s proposed revisions provide clarity on what types of secondary materials are considered non-waste fuels, and greater flexibility. The proposed revisions also classify a number of secondary materials as non-wastes when used as a fuel and allow for a boiler or solid waste operator to request that EPA identify specific materials as a non-waste fuel.

E.  Using a wide variety of fuels, including coal, natural gas, oil and biomass, boilers are used to power heavy machinery, provide heat for industrial and manufacturing processes in addition to a number of other uses, or heat large buildings. EPA’s proposal attempts, so it's said, to recognize the diverse and complex range of uses and fuels and tailors standards to reflect the real-world operating conditions of specific types of boilers.

Dates of interest  Following the April 2010 proposals, the agency received more than 4,800 comments from businesses, communities and other key stakeholders. As part of the reconsideration process, EPA also received additional feedback after the agency issued the final standards in March 2011. EPA will accept public comment on these standards for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register. EPA intends to finalize the reconsideration by spring 2012.