61 Groups Demand That EPA Update Industry Water Pollution Standards, Many Dating to 1970s

Despite Legal Requirement for Annual Reviews, 66% of EPA Standards for Industry Date Back More Than 30 Years

Two thirds of EPA’s water pollution standards for industries are more than 30 years old, despite a Clean Water Act requirement that they be reviewed every year to keep pace with improving pollution control technology, according to a review of federal regulations.

For example, EPA’s standards for cement manufacturing plants have not been updated since 1977, even though commercially-available pollution-control systems have advanced dramatically since then. Standards for oil refineries have not been updated since 1985; and for rubber manufacturing, not since they were issued in 1974.

Because grossly outdated technology standards mean more pollution is pouring into waterways than the law should allow, the Environmental Integrity Project and 60 allied organizations, including Waterkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan today demanding that the agency repair its annual review process to update its water pollution standards on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

“It’s outrageous that we have EPA technology standards for major industries that date back to the 1970s – when modern technology meant rotary dial telephones, Atari’s Pong, and Apple II’s with floppy disks,” said Sylvia Lam, Attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.

“As the Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary approaches, we are calling on the EPA Administrator to fix a system for reviewing and updating industry guidelines that is obviously broken and resulting in much more water pollution than should be allowed,” said Lam.

The letter acknowledges that the Biden Administration EPA, on Sept. 14, announced that it plans to update the standards for slaughterhouses and two other industry categories. But the letter notes that – more broadly – EPA has failed to update the standards for many other industries, and is not carrying out its annual review duties as required by Congress.

Kelly Hunter Foster, Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, said: “The Clean Water Act requires elimination of all pollution discharges into the nation’s waters and directs EPA to require increasingly improving technology to achieve that objective.  This is the heart of the law’s plan to restore and protect clean water and EPA simply has not done it.”

Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman said: “Technology has changed a lot since the 1970s, and it’s past time for EPA to catch up. EPA’s failure to update water pollution standards is illegal—and it allows the worst polluters to continue cutting corners at the expense of public health and the environment.”

Despite some progress, 60 percent of the rivers and stream miles that have been assessed across the U.S. fail to meet water quality standards because they are impaired by pollutants, according to EPA reports and data. That means that, with the Clean Water Act’s birthday approaching in 2022, fewer than half of the country’s assessed waterways are reliably safe and clean.

The 1972 Clean Water Act requires that EPA establish national pollution limits for specific industries based on the best available treatment methods, and then review these limits annually to keep pace with advances in technologies to reduce—and ultimately eliminate—water pollution from industrial sources.

In the 1970s and 1980s, EPA began to meet that obligation, issuing national water pollution limits for 50 out of the 59 industries currently subject to such limits. But since then, EPA has failed to lower these limits as new, more effective treatment technologies and methods become available.

EPA last updated limits for 39 of the 59 industries across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and 17 of those date back to the 1970s.  In fact, the average age of these national water pollution limits is 31 years old. That was about when the World Wide Web was first launched, and when Apple was still 17 years away from its first public release of the iPhone.

“Technology—including pollution control technology—has advanced dramatically over those three decades, and EPA—by law—should be requiring industry to keep up with that modernization,” Lam said. “But that’s not happening—and that failure by EPA puts our waterways and public health at risk.”

One example is water pollution from slaughterhouses, which are a source of millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution annually that clog waterways with algae blooms that threaten public health and rob the waters of the oxygen needed to support aquatic life.

EPA data show that the cleanest slaughterhouses across the U.S.—those that have adopted more recent commercially-available pollution control technology – have cut their nitrogen discharges more than two thirds below the industry-wide average.

That shows that the rest of the meat and poultry processing industry could improve, too. But EPA is not requiring this cleanup, because it has not updated the standards—technically called “effluent limitation guidelines”—for these plants since at least 2004, according to federal records.

Below is a chart showing the age of the effluent limitation guidelines for a few of EPA’s 59 industry categories across the U.S. The full chart showing the age of all 59 effluent limitation guidelines can be found in the letter to EPA.

EPA Water Pollution Limits for Select Industries (Effluent Limitation Guidelines)

Limits for Industrial Category Year of Promulgation Year of Last Revision Age of Pollution Limit (years)
Rubber Manufacturing

1974

never revised

47

Asbestos Manufacturing

1974

1975

46

Seafood Processing

1974

1975

46

Dairy Processing

1974

1975

46

Soap Manufacturing

1974

1975

46

Tar and Asphalt Manufacturing

1975

never revised

46

Explosives Manufacturing

1976

never revised

45

Cement Manufacturing

1974

1977

44

Mineral Mining and Processing

1975

1979

42

Timber Products Processing

1974

1981

40

Textile Mills

1974

1982

39

Inorganic Chemicals

1982

never revised

39

Petroleum Refining

1974

1985

36

Metal Foundries

1985

never revised

36

Leather Tanning and Finishing

1982

1996

25

Pesticide Chemicals

1978

1998

23

Landfills

2000

never revised

21

Coal Mining

1975

2002

19

Meat and Poultry Products

1974

2004

17

Pulp and Paper

1974

2007

14

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

1974

2008

13

Oil and Gas Extraction

1975

2016

5

Coal Plants

1974

2020
(pending)

1

 

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