WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2010 (ENS) – Two environmental groups have come forward in federal court to defend the Obama administration’s new rule limiting air pollutants emitted by medical waste incinerators. The groups have lobbied and taken legal action for more than a decade to put a rule in place that meets the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.

Late Wednesday, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council filed a motion in D.C. Circuit Court to enter a case brought by the Medical Waste Institute and the Energy Recovery Council that seeks to weaken the new rule governing hospital, medical, and infectious waste incinerators.

After 12 years of litigation and legal maneuvering, the rule issued in September 2009 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires reductions in medical waste incinerators’ emissions of mercury, dioxins, acid gases, nitrogen oxides, and metals such as lead and cadmium by 393,000 pounds a year.

The final emission limits will require improvements in performance for 50 of the 57 existing hospital, medical, and infectious waste incinerators currently operating across the United States.

The rule mandates improved testing of small, rural, medical waste incinerators, resulting in better enforcement in rural communities

In addition, the rule eliminates a loophole that previously allowed medical waste incinerators to exceed emission limits whenever they started up, shut down, or malfunctioned.

The EPA estimates that the total nationwide cost for the 57 currently operating hospital, medical, and infectious waste incinerators to comply with the final rule revisions will be approximately $15.5 million per year.

EPA also estimates that the cost of an available disposal alternative would be about $10.6 million, or roughly two-thirds of the estimated compliance costs.

“Hospitals and medical centers should be at the forefront of efforts to protect public health,” said Katie Renshaw of the public interest law firm Earthjustice who filed the motion on behalf of the Sierra Club. “The new rules on toxic air pollution from medical waste incinerators will save lives.”

Marti Sinclair, who chairs the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Team, said, “In Florida, we have seen how strong toxic air regulations work in the real world. Rule changes forced reductions in mercury emissions from South Florida’s medical waste incinerators. Today, mercury levels in the Everglade’s birds and fish have plummeted by 75 percent.

“The jury is in,” said Sinclair. “Reducing toxic air pollution protects both people and wildlife.”

Although the Sierra Club, NRDC, and EPA all oppose the industry’s challenge to the rule, the groups argue that their intervention is important to the case because “the agency’s interpretation of the factual and legal issues in this case is different than the interpretation of the proposed intervenors. Therefore, Environmental Intervenors cannot rely on EPA to make the arguments that they believe should be advanced,” the two environmental groups say in their petition seeking status as intervenors in this case.

The lawyers for the industry organizations have said that they do not object to environmental groups’ intervention. Lawyers for the EPA have stated that the agency takes no position on this motion.

The Medical Waste Institute is a policy-making group within the National Solid Wastes Management Association and the Waste Equipment Technology Association. Members transport, treat, dispose of, and otherwise manage hospital, medical, infectious, pathological, and chemotherapeutic wastes.

The Energy Recovery Council is a national trade organization representing the waste-to-energy industry and communities that own waste-to-energy facilities.

This case has a lengthy legal history. Environmental groups challenged the EPA’s 1997 rule for medical waste incinerators as unlawfully weak. In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals described the agency’s rulemaking as “hopelessly irrational” and sent the 1997 rule back to the agency for change or explanation.

The Bush administration ignored the 1999 court order, forcing Sierra Club and Earthjustice back to court in 2005 and resulting in a court-ordered deadline that was met by the Obama administration in September 2009.

The emissions from medical waste incinerators are among the most deadly in the United States.

The EPA has identified medical waste incinerators as America’s third largest source of dioxins, the most toxic industrial family of pollutants ever discovered. “Medical waste incinerators produce more dioxins than all paper mill boilers, industrial furnaces and boilers, cars and trucks, hazardous waste incinerators, and coal and oil burning power plants combined,” according to the Boston Chemical Data Corp.

The environmental groups warn that, “Mercury is known to damage the central nervous systems of unborn babies and children, resulting in symptoms similar to congenital cerebral palsy.”

The groups point out that lead is a probable human carcinogen that can cause developmental damage in children and babies as well as brain damage, kidney damage, and damage to the reproductive system, saying, “Even small amounts of these pollutants can cause cancer or similarly tragic health effects.”

Click here to read the Obama EPA’s rule for medical waste incinerators.

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